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.

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?


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.

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.


Twelve hands’ breadth.

Fear demands answers but accepts none.  Strange that fear’s questions self-identify; that is, I hold its danger-cry as my own.  ‘Answer me!’ I say.

But when the ambush subsides, I remain and fear is not with me.  Untrained I may misuse the safety mechanism to great harm rather than aim carefully.

The answer is to swim away towards what land might appear or to duck under the wave and hope it should roll past.  I may yet be swept away in it.



And how am I to answer?  Fear in others arouses anger in me; a short-lived flame scorches my innards and strains my back.  But I am least able to see my own fears’ paralyzing effects.

I scoff at their impotence unaware I am choking myself — but the answer is to expose it to the air.  Let my fear not find a partner.  Let me uncoil and unclench my benumbed fingers.  To this extent the trap shall not succeed — no answer works elsewise.

This is the space — twelve to go and two to release.

by degrees

All degrees are remnants of the past — at best indicators of abilities which may be applied to the future.  The full weight of the problem does not rest therein (though I wonder how much a problem weighs — a problem truly), but more often the filtering which takes place is justified within the course’s outlook solely.  Skills may be practised in the classroom and by these an arbitrary grading scale is determined — fine enough, but how is the feedback to be applied?

In case you fail to recognise the symptoms, at present I ‘m grading papers.  The long term applications of this work are minimal, yet this is the part that has to be done correctly — I can’t afford to assign a mark falsely only to have it overturned.  What a waste that should prove!  Both teacher and student strain the neck preparing for the blow to fall — not to fall unexpectedly, better to be proactive.  I should wish this would n’t affect my marking, but it does.  At best my marking is judiciously subjective — and in places justified, but there are surely places where I have been injudicious and shall be again.

So what is to be made of this all?  I mean to suggest that subjective is n’t a bad thing — so long as the word is spoken in the daylight its most sinister machinations fail to harm much.  It is when the guise of objectivity can be wielded with full naiveté that real damage may occur — for the student and teacher might well benefit from the other’s perspective.  We should do better.  Students should no more fulfill assignments than we should mark them complete — instead we should together build projects which draw on the other’s strengths.

In short teaching should grow with both student and teacher alike — it will need to prove itself as truly inter-active.