The Type of Misunderstanding Which Frightens Me…

…sorry, sometimes it really scares me that a friend could be going through something and think that due to circumstances or mood I might be less proud of them. I don’t actually like multiplying misunderstandings so I really wish to try to dispel this one if at all possible: for a friend I hope I don’t communicate that I judge you by whether your circumstances bode well or ill – but rather, if the striving of your soul shows character and your actions are in good faith, far be it from me to be anything less than proud of you.

I’m feeling a little sobered that I don’t communicate this and wish that this wasn’t lost in the dialogue somewhere because my estimation of friends is idyll in their favor, frown or no. Sigh.

On Reading as Performance

(I should add ‘provisionally’ to the title for a reason I shall be sure to expound upon soon)

Amidst our course’s considerations of H.G. Gadamer’s “Truth and Method” (Philosophical Hermeneutics with Merold Westphal to provide greater context) we have seriously looked at seeing texts. I only plan to draw one thought, one possibility, therefrom; the manner by which reading parallels performance.

Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s ‘How to Read a Book’ offers the reader an introduction to methods by which to actively encounter the text (assuming such is a worthwhile venture) – essentially by means of questions. Clearly they want to get away from the notion that the reader’s goal is to passively receive the (static) message of the author [Gadamer makes the point that transmitting an inner understanding is not always the author’s purpose, nor does the author have ultimate control over the life of the text]. The active reader better experiences the text – but are two readings ever the same (and is it problematic if they are n’t)?

Considering reading as it parallels the interpretation of a play (or the performance of a musical piece) may allow us to think differently of this activity. I return to certain works of imaginative literature in hopes of recovering some experience in reading, but my reading is never the same. Each time new items come to the front of the scene (illumined by other readings or better background understandings of the author or even current events in my life – all of these may affect the created scenes in more or less pleasing manners) and other items are neglected that may have been special in a prior reading.

For example, each reading of Lewis’ ‘Till We Have Faces’ has been different for me: I recall Orual’s case against the gods and answer as thoroughly gripping when first I stumbled across it — more recently considering Psyche as the human soul as opposed to Orual’s jealousy of her was particularly illuminating. I can never recover fully the first reading, though I treasure the memory of ‘performing’ the interpretation of the words in my mind (yes, that qualifies me as a nerd or a subset thereof).

It should not require much comment, but there are certainly better and worse performances (of interpretations) as there are tremendous and dubious performances on the stage. What I suppose is interesting about this consideration is that we are tempted to think of the author as the puppet-master of the text…but there is far more at play. Rather the reader is the director interpreting the screen-play (hopefully without gross distortions of the screen-play, but the screen-play may be gross in its own right and the performance could be better than the author’s intention). I should again mention (as Adler & van Doren did) that not every screenplay is worth a good performance – but some certainly are. Further, those directors who choose to interpret challenging works are more likely to better perform another work – while interpretation of such sort is unlikely to ever be the ‘perfect’ performance, this need not be the cause of any despair.

What performances haunt you with their beauty and demand another reading?

In-complete Mis-understandings I

To imperfectly consider one reason for hesitating to disambiguate: a person is far more than the sum of her beliefs or rational stances. However, this is often a significant means by which we attempt to categorize one another. Be the distinctions socio-economic, familial, achievement-oriented, or religious; the reductionist constructs by which we attempt to understand one another fail to result in a comprehensive picture. That is, the sum of our thought-constructs never results in an adequate person category.

Can we get around these processes? No, nor should we despair. But, we are best served to never be satisfied with our current misunderstandings of one another. The process of disambiguation which occurs in relationships – wherein we find always that our categories spill over the edges – looks like repeatedly laying aside one misunderstanding for a better one.

On Misunderstanding Well

A quick note: upon seeing my new blog title, my roommate’s initially responded with, “that’s easy.” By this he means that being misunderstood is easy.

Yes, but. Yes but being misunderstood with a purpose in mind (or several) is different. Perhaps I won’t be able to execute this purpose to the fullest possible extents, but I see this as a worthy aim. What I am suggesting is that perhaps misunderstandings can be used to reach a more holistic understanding. How may this be done? Sorry, I wish to communicate that implicitly rather than explicitly.

Mis-explanation of a Mis-purpose statement

Tongue in cheek?  Never.

What is the normative purpose of blogging?  Either to log thoughts that you are trying to work your way through or perhaps to connect your ideas with some perceived community of people sharing your views.

I’m interested in neither.  First, I realize that my thoughts concerning a subject are constantly being coated over with new language and seen in new lights (ideally), so slowing down to understand my thoughts suggests a permanence or static nature for such thought constructs.  Why discuss such matters?  Second, there is some danger in being understood.  Perhaps you already misunderstand.  Excellent.  There exists the possibility such that you share some of my presuppositions, but are uninterested in considering them from the angles I choose – and the stronger possibility that you neither share my presuppositions nor understand my choices of communicating them.  Excellent.  Instead of pretending that we fully grasp something when we don’t, let us content ourselves in understanding by means of miscommunication.

Cheers!

Pointings-to become what…

I just had a review of a post from last year, perhaps well meant but ultimately worth as little as most introductions.  The best possible spirit I might have intended would have been to influence others to read a few titles they might otherwise miss out on.

But it really is and was more self-serving.  It’s the reason I’ve stopped using GoodReads — it was working too well.  I would fly through some work I hadn’t seen and inevitably compare how many others of my friends had read so much or so many pages or so well.  In the best of worlds I hoped for discussions to emerge, much as I hoped when starting my prior blog and this one.

It’s just that I’ve begun to realise that these exercises are truly exorcisms.  A good book provides new furrows for thoughts to follow along and test their footing, but much as with any path one soon finds oneself at the end of it with merely vague recollections of what marks led from there to here.  If I don’t write notes and use these notes productively, it merely becomes fodder for me to show off.

And what is easier than showing off one’s book collection? or name-dropping to reference some idea?  It is clothed in a chivalry of wanting to accost all with their due, but it serves to raise the name of the speaker as well ever so silently.  A list allowed me to feel most satisfied when reading had come to an end — but I would not follow the next step of weighing carefully what value the going was worth.

**                                                **

And so the hubris exemplified by the maintaining of lists where interaction is desired — I hope to not be surrounded by like-minded people but rather to be surrounded by improving people: people for whom reading is less important than being read.  I do not blog or read or write to win the praise of inferiors, but to discover how my understandings can be better — and to unleash the worst of my writing which must surely flow out of the pipe before healthy water can flow through the same lines.

It is when I am most freed from my reading that I am a worthy reader — a thoughtful traveler with mind and feet active; that is the quality of my reading cannot be described quantitatively and is not merely a mental exercise, but rather is fostering the engagements necessary to push out all weak and loose readings so that worthy footholds may be found.  A writer is not free from words, but should have an end in mind better than his own.  For thoughts may yet travel where names will fail to leave a tread-mark.

**                                         **

This is why I preserve writings — I may yet be warned lest my pointings indicate merely myself.

the Dock

I was born no venturer, but now my feet are restless.  My view of home has both expanded its borders and shrunk — no more is a permanent locale my destination for I too am changing.  A taste in the air is telling, but the sea beckons strongest.

Each step into or out from the river sees us both affected.  Only I believe the river can’t see me.  My voice is carried off in the current and mingled with its own, even as the impressions of my feet too are swept.

Downstream and further downstream — and where do all these memories fly off to?  In what sea can they be found again and do they again rain upon the earth?

I ‘m weary and unready to ford here — for my cry of encore is lost in this sea unreachable.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

~~~~~~~~~~~~

What separates past from present for a river?  Shall my words yet find me and approve?

But in the water I feel best the ripples of my strokes — it is apart from embarkation I lose this sense.  And I am again blinded, wondering by which river I am crushed — the visible or the non.

Mis-valuating

A year makes quite the difference.  Peripheral items become surprisingly possible (like uni teaching or nearly grasping Foucault [or his aims]) while expectations find themselves buried under a towering stack of other expectations (for example, progressing in Arabic or publishing).  The past is a sea — swelling and rolling away.  What was permanently distinct vanishes into the waves — one horizon is where I have been, the other where I shall be.

With this movement — for I quite believe the past is as much in motion as the present or future, or else we would n’t learn new things about the past (and forget more) — centering a meaning and pinning it down is not impossible, but requires effort.  I must at least intend clarity or I shall never pluck these Promethean sand-kernels from that which engulfs, tosses, and leads shore-ward.  Even as a goal is sought, this end being pursued is transforming.

And so the disappointments of non-writing, non-thinking, and non-reading mingle together with the best nothings.  If I wish to change I must choose well which are to be rightly discarded; and this I have not trained myself for.  Choosing her is preparing to reject all else — reorienting the orbits and then preparing for collisions.

These frustrations swirl about the good sand — overpowering the flavor of the waves often.  True, this corpus is not so easily tossed about — for its orbit is drawn more tightly.  Much debris is redirected elsewhere and the result better suits the traveler who would follow a similar path.  Tracking another in the ocean is not a straight-forward task, but parallels emerge — one splash will not catch all things.

Answering each ripple, or even each wave, would be an unending task — and does any answer the ocean?  Tiamat can fling aside such arrows — for they merely pierce the skin.  As fingers find their skill — so that they may filter all but the single sand-grain — so I would call to share my joy with others.  But who can understand what I have found but a fellow diver?  And what tongue can steal the meaning from these finger-tips…but surely some sign can be offered.

How unfortunate that time must then draw all meaning back to the depths — and that we surface-dwellers would think a wave must be answered by a ripple.  Such are not the Atlantean laws — the world beneath the waves beckons (and shall be answered by no bird).

In Praise of Solitude: Stachelschweine in der Kälte

Perhaps you ‘ve heard of Schopenhauer’s cold porcupine/hedgehog dilemma.  Therein the poor creatures, analogous to we shivering masses — in need of what society has to offer, huddle together for warmth.  Of course, the pricks of proximity drive them again away from one another and so an equilibrium is reached where both cold and pricking are minimised.  My reading of Schopenhauer finds the negative qualities given central roles — we do not find a good in society as good is merely the absence of bad, happiness the absence of suffering.  And so, as the title Studies in Pessimism should warn the reader, goodness’ solidity is no match for the harshness of its more effective counterpart.

Having heard the parable before, I was surprised to find his intended point: not that it is best to find this equilibrium, but it is best to have an internal source of heat.  What interests is the non-hopeful idealism this elicits, in myself at least.  The goings-on of these pigs-with-spikes is of little immediate interest — it is to the pig of a different sort Schopenhauer beckons.

Ordinary people are sociable and complaisant just from the very opposite feeling;—to bear others’ company is easier for them than to bear their own…

…people are rendered sociable by their ability to endure solitude, that is to say, their own society.  

Our Relation to Ourselves

Here too he goes on to discuss people crowding together for warmth and to aver that this sociability which develops is not worth the condescension imposed on this singular person.  “It may be said that a man’s sociability stands very nearly in inverse ratio to his intellectual value.”

<

<

Not so long ago, I would have agreed.  I still wish to uphold the value of a cultivated solitude (for in a noisy, inter-networked world maintaining the state necessary for concentration is no small feat), but it must also be helpful to some portion of the others.  It is not acceptable only to be a man apart, capable of self-produced warmth but not of diffusing such heat.  In such a state the good which might be attained is lost — bottled up inside the (perhaps) happy but incommunicable soul.  It is not enough that Socrates pursued the true path if the markers left behind cannot be followed.  Surely not all (likely most) society is worthy of our time, but the good must be communicated else no lasting progress be effected.

In sum, solitude is not merely a worthy pastime and a potential joy but its benefits are insufferable if they are to never be offered (in some adjusted socialisation) to others who shiver as well.

Being Read by Burnt Njal

On occasion, a book arrests me.  While a visit to a Shanghai foreign book store left my pack loaded with ‘the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire’ and ‘Madness and Civilization’, it was the unexpected catch which has called for attention first: the Icelandic history/tale ‘Njal’s saga’.

Simultaneously my wife and I took up Game of Thrones.  Aside from the map detail and theme song, the rest of our GoT experience has been horribly disappointing.  It simply has n’t stood up to the likes of the West Wing, or the Wire, or even the Newsroom.

Why has the first captured my imagination, along with its struggles, while George R.R. Martin’s creations disappoint so thoroughly?  The saga centers around family conflicts on the kingless island of Iceland.  Their elaborate system of laws, for which each man and his family must be the guarantor if a suit is to be successful, and at the same time must defend a sense of honor…which does n’t match with my modern concepts of chivalry [there’s been nothing of rescuing helpless maidens for instance, not that this is what I want]– it’s not a question of manners, but of whether these farmers are able to acquit themselves well without destabilizing the island’s relative peace.

I think I recognise a shame culture — even an isolated collectivism in the tale of Burnt Njal which is slowly becoming less foreign to me.  The characters have little by way of modern dialogue — opting instead to utter insult for insult or seeking a peace which serves the opinion of the other assemblants.  Njal’s skills at law seem to be related most to his willingness to do what is best for all Iceland, rather than appeasing himself, and to his ability to predict how another will prosecute their case.  He sees disaster coming, but will not bemoan it as a Sophocletian character — his part is to be played and he will take each step.

It seems to me that a shame culture requires one to know his standing with other key people — but there is nothing of ‘guilt’ to be spoken for (speaking in absurd generalities here).  Here I would be curious of others’ perspectives.

Ah and one more aspect — the communal.  Despite having some Old Testament reading background, multiplied genealogies for an era for which I am unfamiliar are unhelpful.  I would hear more of the character’s inner deliberations and hesitations, and less of whose line he comes from.  But these names, which are largely awesome [snake-in-eye being a favorite] reflect both what others think of him [Thorkel Bully, for instance] and who he is — who he is is not an individual spot of land, but a question of who stands with him and what fathers of renown he can boast.  These are largely alien concepts for me, but they are not the worse because I do not understand them deeply.  They are a culture far from my own, and for this I can attempt to learn from them [though I do not mean to perpetuate their violence or reinstate a fully patriarchal society].

And in this I am read by the saga, and less the saga is read by me.

<><><><><>

GoT, meanwhile, fails to develop a satisfying storyline.  I can’t see why anyone wants to rule the iron throne or why so many characters are left undeveloped.  It is far more soap opera rolled into mystery than saga — there is no great journey of an Odysseus or great injustice of an Oedipus or even the case of a wise and well-respected Njal.  Some of the brutality and sensuality could be excused as part of the tale if there were truly a going — but in this adventure it seems that there is only carnage and jockeying for position, and all prepared to entertain.  But is entertainment merely following along with glee as undeveloped shadowy character after undeveloped shadowy character is cut off from the land of the living?  Could n’t there be a closer look at the machinations which go into a real war — or a consideration of some common persons — or a noble and well-educated non-caucasian character?  How can this be called story?

What is to be read in me is whether I would finish a story simply to say I have finished it — and what is the value then? to know who sits atop the throne — this is why I deplore mystery novels.  They are almost inevitably unworthy of a second reading.  A saga, meanwhile, is worth revisiting as it tells me of a flawed way of dealing with your neighbors — is not my individualism itself a violence to community?  How does guilt relate to, or block out, shame?

One leaves me to question myself, while the other leads me to count the minutes until at last the credits roll.  Which should I prefer?

dis-peptic

There are two reasons to write. Both greatly influence the qualities, as they determine the goals, of the products.

The first is personal gain — I wanted to limit this to money, but have to admit authorship requires enough pride to devote yourself to a task for an extended period. Mostly I have wanted to be an author (read: to have authored/to enjoy the fruits of writing), and therefore an expert. Within this range, of course, is a determination to achieve social status/fame, or to improve cash-flow.

The aim then is to give the audience enough of what it demands to receive whichever combination of status, power, and financial securities is desired.

The second I’m inclined to offer as ‘nausea’. Something needs to be said, and it can no longer be kept down. Whatever the results precisely, here the author can hold back no longer.

Noise – Noxia – Nausea

Engulfed.  A sea of noise drowns out all competitors and so plunges thoughts below the surface.  Be carried by the current or struggle against it at your peril.

My wife won’t stand for commercials.  They grate on her classically trained ears.  I feel my best chance of returning to the ‘sunlit lands’ above the waves is to ignore them.

We each have cultivated sensitivities which require focus, and focus must be protected.  As Schopenhauer relates, a diamond divided into shards loses all value.  So too with thought or the serenity which accompanies its careful manifestations.

The city is no friend of the sound-sensitive, or smell- or sight-sensitive for that matter, but we are on the subject of sound.  For Schopenhauer, it was the heedless and unceasing cracking of whips — a sound which paralyses the brain.  Its current counterpart would be the car-horn: counterintuitively it demands another go when the sound screams halt.  And so it has not the desired effect, resulting in a chorus of replying honks.  Or, an incomprehensible blaring of directions must be shouted at us until the warning it is meant to deliver is blocked out with all other such noisea.

As a teacher I have well marked that my best chance of regaining control of the classroom is not to shout over the students, but to grow quieter and firmly signal my intent to speak.  A nudge effects more than a shove, unless we are living in a world of shoves.

Nausea

But thought, if it is to be fruitful and worthy of discourse, must be checked and re-checked.  New pathways must be explored and old ones unearthed.  Most cultural output is too ready to speak and shows it has not listened.  It cannot listen for it is merely shouting over the din and so becoming part of this oceanic violence.

Getting our attention for a fraction of a moment is considered just cause for violating our peace.  My thought and your thought is not worth protecting when profit is to be made.  It is everyone’s job to entertain us long enough to be marketed to.

But books are little better.  Publishers, academic or otherwise, are less interested in the value of their product and its usefulness to the audience than in making a profit despite technological challenges.

That which is most helpful often is whispered, not shouted, and for the listener ear and ground must draw closer.  But so long as profit is to be made from noise it must remain the primary occupation of thinkers to escape long enough to produce something.

In-Communicable

For you I cannot answer, but I can certainly enumerate a few preferences — of such a thing as Lewis claims to have found, Joy, and the never-ending hunt for what brings Joy is a subject likely to communicate our differences.  For we all pursue it by ways seemingly incommunicable with others’ paths. Perhaps extroverts do not hunt for it in a like fashion — I should require another’s testimony on the subject.  But a matter of ‘taste’, as it seems discussion of enjoyment engenders, is something one can only appreciate when one shares a similar joy in tasting /this/ — it is not enough to say ‘I concede it possible to like such a thing, though I do not.’  This is no reconciliation.

It is holiday and the day-dreaming about holidays; the satisfaction of true labor — a labor which need not reflect for its perfection; bold, rich, and deep laughter; that which is surely shared though indescribable — better hinted towards than expounded upon.

Joy is ever perceived indirectly — and after the fact that joy has put its coat on and sullied out the door.  Although the memory of joy and the anticipation of joy are tasting, they are not the same as the unsummoned, though often invited, Joy which is.  It is not simply an excited state of synapses firing and recognizing pleasure, though it certainly leaves physical traces.  And yet Joy is not a thing to be pursued of its own right.

I was and am still enchanted, for I have no better word and so long as I have joy in some measure I expect no better — if ever perfectly dissected, Joy itself vanishes, for this was a foolish misuse — by the hunt for the Great White Stag in LWW.  I cannot make you feel for it as I do; if you do already my words will not stir this fire to frenzy.  Should these Kings and Queens catch this creature, what on earth shall they do with it?  Surely such a thing is beautiful for the sake of the chase, but not in the catching.  A clear reason for their pursuit evades us, as we ride alongside at the height of play and romp possible in a full-hearted pursuit.  Joy, if caught, will disappear into the dark shadows of memory and yet pursuing is a fairer course.  It is much as though the students are chased back through the wardrobe, though in the kindest manner possible — where previously they were chased into it.

The manner of chase greatly differs, and yet, once on the other side, they are not to pursue Narnia for its own sake — their way back shall be provided when the time is right.  Lewis’ endless search for Joy reveals itself to be a chase whereby he is to find that joy itself is but an icon — and yet icons are fruitful and the King of Joy pursues (against an Aristotelian, self-interested God) where we sense him uninterested in our Joy.  Very much the opposite — he would turn our taste to the true (not merely the logically valid and rationally supported) — to the living truth.  For this communicates to us, though I find it impossible to communicate to another.  And so it must be whispered, for in whispers Joy is acclaimed loudly — in silence His reflection gleams.

If you have misunderstood me

It is so much the easier for me to accept your mis-statements if I assume they betray some underlying misunderstanding.

It would be so much easier for you to helpfully locate my responses if you realize I am responding to the ways in which I believe you have misunderstood me.

Considerable stress ensues if one of us insists ‘no, I have understood you’ for asserting I nearly understand you engenders no power-language, but insisting on my understanding limits your ability to speak on your own account. Now we both are to wrestle for the same ground — and presumably the ground ought to be yours first.

In this our usage more closely relates to epistamai in Greek or oferstandan from Old English wherein our piecing together stands upon this (cf. http://www.etymonline.com, maintained by D. Harper).  The word picture is of a conqueror, not of a partner in discourse.

How better to dismiss another than with the words I understand?  To do such is to disinherit the other’s power of commanding her own words.

But if I assume we are wielding two competing misunderstandings, the bugle call to unending allegiance to what I probably did not intend dies away in favor of a chance to listen to you — to listen without immediate concerns of power.  We should become accustomed to the body postures which accompany the most harmful of misunderstandings — the shoulders of dismissal and the accompanying upturned lips along with the spinal tilt of self-rectitude and compare these with the relaxed focus necessary to give any worthy other a hearing.

Of course hearing is more difficult than non-hearing.  A ready mind must readily dismiss more than it accepts and so many misunderstandings may persist.  The commitment, daily, should be to unstop the ears quickly and with it to un-tense the neck so a positive misunderstanding might be attained.

Eyjafjallajökull and PrejudiceX

My edu-disappointment was set to turn around: my graduate studies failed to engage (tip: don’t take a Masters in your undergrad major) to that point but optimism was slow to die. A chance to return to Oxford called, however feebly and I would answer. In short order a ‘plan’ was thrown together: attempt a reading in something bound to interest (medieval Islamic philosophy would do the trick), and continue towards a degree by taking online versions of these infernal introduction courses. So I ordered and packed the books I would need for my ten week courses and loaded the podcasts. Ethics, New Testament Gospels, and Theology II would be my lowest priority, and this I admitted freely to myself. And so I flew home and prepared to sleep amidst the dreaming spires.

A cloud not so figuratively separated me from this chance at redemption. Temporarily, of course, but I was n’t prepared for such a delay. So I listened to a few podcasts, read a few passages, and took sparse notes as I checked the boxes comprising my course responsibilities.

ominous NASA overview of the Icelandic sleeping giant

After several days I was finally transported. Opportunity. Fresh air. The promise of raindrops’ fall to heal my wearied optimism.

Ah, Oxford in the rain — I can imagine droplets on the Vines’ stones too easily

Strangely I was not only transported, but transformed. I became a morning person — a charge none would bring against me ever — rising before 7 each morning to blaze through 200-300 pages of reading at moderately difficult levels per day whilst dutifully implanting the earpieces. And the effects of this whittling began to show. For every 1,000 pages read or two hours’ lectures heard I felt the burdens lightening.

I processed 10 weeks’ reading and lectures in about the span of 3 weeks and could not have been more self-satisfied. The readings were largely dull as were the lectures. Little surprised me in the lectures either. These lecturers were more specialized than my previous professors, but I could n’t interact with them in this format. To be fair I barely interacted with my teachers in graduate school beyond maintaining something akin to eye contact and wincing at 85% of my classmates’ questions. There were few ‘hooks’ or insights I cared to deal with. I understood the majority of the readings and kept up with the lectures, but I was more checked out than I was in a physical classroom.

He’s not looking at me…

After over a week of this I began interspersing the West Wing with the listenings and readings. I never tried three at a time, but it was not unusual to attempt following an episode whilst straddling Facebook chatting and listening to the briefer podcasts. Needless to say, and partly due to my split attentions, my meaningful interactions with the materials were minimal.

On the other hand, I found my study exhilarating.  Breathe in — breathe out.  M. Whit happened to have written not only on Medieval Islamic philosophy, but on my preferred philosopher.  Though everything I tried was unpolished, he still offered his guidance in constructing an initial bibliography and tightening my research questions.  Our sessions continued to trim this focus in and by the end I had summarized the philosopher’s contribution, although I continue struggling with the best explanation of this, and become briefly acquainted with some important excerpts.  A non-expert I remained but I can speak meaningfully about this project because I was directly guided and I was heard.

My writing faults were laid bare to me insofar as they affected what I wished to communicate — if you want to say something miscommunication hurts.  Grammar and form not only guide, but serve meaning.

I miss my whiteboards

In my not-so-massive and not-so-open online course I was not heard.  I was to listen, and read, and finally take some exams and write.  I put some care into the book-reports, but barely studied for my exams and blagued my way through.  The final 28 hours approaching the submission deadline on the distant Pacific Coast saw me generate well over 30 pages of academic writing.  I breathed deeply — and I want to imagine it was raining as I escaped that small library, stole away home, gesticulated wildly as my email ate my work before finally obeying my wishes, and finally became one with that creaking chair.  As memory serves the result was in keeping with my GPA — unspectacularly in A-/B+ territory.

There was naught by way of feedback aside from the grades.  No helpful interactions.  No suggested improvements.  Take this and move along.

Elation wore away.  Optimism was served another cold blow and I marched three disgruntled steps closer to graduating — no better for the wear.

^^^

You may think my juxtaposition unfair.  I attempt to extrapolate the distance learning version of the lecture course, which sadly would ‘ve had little more by way of feedback or interaction, to massive open online courses or MOOCs.  But what I do n’t hear in Sams’ EPIC2020 prognostication or in many pro-MOOC/anti-brick and mortar establishment gushings is a thoughtful pedagogy.

I am first comparing the value of a teacher-centered model of learning, or lecture-based, with a student-centered one which emphasizes student aptitudes, learning styles, and skills.  TedEd, according to Sams, is matching the best lecturers (or best known) with the best design teams.  But a lecturing model is minimally effective — even when there is class order, the class is small, and the personality of the instructor is dynamic.  Eye contact and the opportunities for interaction are sacrificed in favor of the memorize-what-I-said framework.  Knowledge which can be expounded in this manner by an expert must necessarily be stationary, so the hearers can catch up, and containable — or reductive.

MOOCs mean everyone can achieve the back-row lecture experience

What types of knowledge fit such a pedagogy?  We should be little surprised to find it is basic mathematics or grammar.  And here I would point out a similarity.  Math is a language by which we analyze items around us through analogies (remember word problems) and models (e.g., xyz-planes/Cartesian coordinate systems).  It is useful, so long as the rules are followed.  A do-exactly-as-I-do approach is effective for a fair sampling of the populace, although student-discovery programs are valuable as well.  Basic grammar is quite similar — the ability to accomplish solutions in the real world without sequencing and order suffers with consistent errors.  Anyway, this model will work for some self-actuated learners whose learning styles match well with a lecture-based format.

But it cannot work well in teaching students to become masters.  And for this reason it will not replace, although it will certainly draw away from, campuses.  Knowledge would have to stop changing — but it is a moving series of boundaries whenever closely examined in any fine detail.  It’s why you can’t learn a language wholesale from a podcast, or a few movies, or from one lecturer.  You need to interact, receive feedback on the culture you ‘re failing to consider.

Language deserves its own full treatment, but it will have to suffice to say that so long as there are speaking-communities, so long as the language ‘lives’ words will continue to change in usage.  As such, their precise meaning cannot be fully ascertained by data-mining.  Instead spending time in a community is necessary to achieve mastery.  Knowledge of this sort requires familiarization with culture.  I fully realize few institutions adequately provide for real-language learning opportunities, but MOOCs are n’t close to the answer either.  In the coming years language-learning is going to be a driving force and the education needs can be served by tutors, whether in small or large companies, but not by MOOCs once the student reaches an intermediate (or more likely pre-intermediate) level.

Socialization and interpersonal skills will not ever be fully met through social media, insofar as social networking continues to mean screen-to-screen communication.  Decorum, true empathy, and the people skills necessary to succeed in any job which has clients or co-workers are best served by a mentorship model.  Part of the reason companies like to hire college graduates is they know a graduate at least had to live with other people in some capacity.  This could be achieved without an on-campus experience, but the value of working within social constructs will remain appealing to many portions of the economy.

Finally, critical thinking in the form of helpful arguments and top notch writing cannot be achieved alone.  At some point we all have to hear why our support is wanting, our repetitions clanging, and thinking clouded.  Writing is a practice best learned by finding something worth saying and then fumbling for the words.  My deficiencies were discovered in steps and at last I have found a voice I recognize akin to my own.  My distance learning courses were not part of the sharpening, but my being tutored was.  I could see what I was failing to say more clearly than what I was saying.  I needed to be heard before I could hear myself.

Peer-grading in MOOCs is not the answer if companies wish to employ articulate message-bearers.  Advertising, and fund-raising, and in-office consensus building require writing and reasoning skills not to be found through social media.  Do any need proof Facebook and Twitter are not the places to learn the value of logical reasoning?  They are, rather, reflections of what their members already are — or are n’t yet.

~~~

Lest any should think I am stumping for the general on-campus experience, I ‘m not.  The cost of education versus the return in marketable skills, quality of life improvements, and employability is horrifically mis-distributed.  Too much of future students are indebted in the service of new and unnecessary construction, new student recruitment, textbook suppliers, and middle management.  As a result class sizes grow while teacher-student interaction diminishes, teachers who bring research-grants or new students to the schools are rewarded while the best teachers//not lecturers//are easily overlooked or filtered out.  The goal of these education-institutions is easily too monetized and too little interested in the surrounding community or the students’ real potential impacts in their jobs.  So much for optimism.

MOOCs seem most likely to replace community colleges while the large scale universities crumble simply because the current model is unsustainable.

unless progress does n’t mean learner improvement

Tutoring centers and mentorships or research fellowships could well fill in the gaps for those seeking to develop skill sets.  Business writing and other skill-focused centers could supply the missing links as students hone skills and pursue mastery.  Instead of a Mozilla badge, or certificate of course completion, schools, MOOCs and tutoring centers will most hopefully provide portfolio pages which both laud demonstrated skills and suggest steps for improvement for the students.

Whatever shape the future will take, it is meaningless to simply predict what will happen.  It is far better to attempt to shape it with meaningful values guiding the discussion.  If education is to improve, it won’t be merely technological innovation — it will require varied pedagogical models, community- and student-focuses, and just enough optimism to seek continued improvement.  Or else we shall be left well acquainted with a knowledge cheaply bought, poorly summarized, and inappropriately suited to our purposes.  And that would n’t be worth teaching to anyone.