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.

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.

Non-Working Title

The primary element which drew me to select the current title under which to pen these thoughts (if anything can truly bind them together other than the inexplicable unity I pretend to understand as pertaining to myself) was the expectations it was likely to generate. 

Previously I penned thoughts under my own name, but came to think there was too much cheek or pride or some such attached to it; too much permanence for someone who is convinced that one can’t step in the same river twice (or truly deliver the same lecture twice to channel that thought anew).  And worse: specifically using my own name suggests that you are becoming more familiar somehow with me, as if that were a significant part of why I read or research or ponder or do anything in the first place.  It ‘s mildly interesting for me, but it ‘s always secondary – I prefer learning from what I have been/done.  In the end I shall have little say over how I am to be viewed anyway, so far better to try learning to be someone than to defend a name I did n’t choose (though I ‘m no less than proud of the associations that come with my name for family’s sake).

So, when this title hit, I liked first that it interested me as a reader (though I do n’t think my writing to date is up to the level of the title’s originality or the interest-level I have with the image it evokes), but contemporaneously could see that dismissing the expectations of being understood relieved a great deal of tension.  Instead of dismissing my arguments and myself wholly in one go, this core concept allows for others to be conceived and dismissed in service of discourse.  I think of it much as though I am learning a language (for I am somewhat acquainted with this): one must make innumerable mistakes before one learns to speak meaningfully by means of such (and one cannot communicate without some linguistic medium). 


There seem to be two sorts of geniuses* generated by my mind in contradistinction: one who generates a new system which all others must take account therefrom or the one who readily understands how to summarize and apply each system of interest.  I suppose I cannot say with any conviction that either truly exists, but some certainly have an easier time of it than I do.  I should like then to think that what understanding (linguistic or otherwise) I attain to is then the result of much hard work and discipline, but in all cases I am trying to write a narrative in which I am special due to the perceived quality of my thoughts.  Here we are back at the name-formation issue.  I.e., I only know differentiate myself by seeing what is different in myself, and therefore my actions, from what I understand to be you and your actions. 

But honestly, I do n’t think thoughts, or systems of thought, truly attach themselves to people in such manner.  Instead that which we speak (for who can recount all that one thinks but does not say) reflects who we are…meaning it establishes a point of discourse which another can respond to.  But it does not tell us truly wherefrom we shall speak at the next moment, nor what points of discourse precede this one.  For that we require relational understanding to one another.  Friends speak another language to each other.  Although one might end up anywhere along the spectrum of possibilities allowed in language, such freedom is enacted in a way a good friend might learn to predict.  While we may never give precisely the same lecture again, we are likely to speak of the same subjects and to attach to them similar language patterns; all is not thoroughly randomized.


Returning then to how a reader may encounter a discourse in which misunderstanding is not only acknowledged as likely, but serves as the core expectation: what may be expected of the author is that for every thought marked in his discourse, others are being necessarily concealed.  So it is not unlikely that misunderstanding may arise due to stylistic choices, such as voice or mood.  Even the intonation and stresses with which a reader approaches this text shall lead to a different manner of misunderstanding (which is necessarily an understanding as well).  But a wholesale dismissal of such thoughts is much harder to express (aside from choosing to ignore completely what is posited).  Further, it admits that as the author I am not claiming to understand precisely what I mean to say (though I can dismiss many misunderstandings of purpose or minor foibles).


In fact, I am trying to learn what it is that I am saying.  This is the very reason I write: so that I may not only encounter thoughts but respond to them and learn their advantages.  By being informed of disadvantages for which I did not account, I may yet learn how to better locate such thoughts in the future.  Therefore writing as I would have it is an invitation to feedback; a chance not only to express thoughts so as to test my abilities to communicate them (and I am quite certain I miscommunicate with myself as well as with you, the reader) but to learn what faces such ideas have for those outside myself.  For that, I am truly interested.  And so, ironically hopefully, I yet am learning how to express that which is beyond me, perhaps to the benefit of those who may move well beyond me. 

Let us be less serious then in defending ourselves and our thoughts simultaneously as we pursue learning how to speak and act in better accord by the negation that is genial discursive opposition.





*or genii, if you will

(Every time I see Working Title Films’ logo, I admire their name choice)

Feedback, Update Culture, and Communicative Distress

This article (by Timothy Dalrymple: 14 Feb, 2012) caught my eye this past day.  My first impulse was to give pause to consider why it is I blog (as opposed or congruent to why others do).  But first, a digression (which is n’t really a digression):

Whatever practicalities have lent themselves to checking my phone and e-mail inbox for messages, maintaining a facebook account (and ignoring a myspace one), and, when the iron is hot; blogging, I find myself spending more time checking for updates than meaningfully communicating.  I can pretend to ignore the psychological effects of this with the best of them, but it calls into question whether the returns reflect what I intend.  I can ill afford to fail to define meaningfulcommunication – so I ‘ll choose here communication which either gives rise to right action (orthopraxy) or which leads to a dialogue worth having (the grand pursuit of truth and good together).

In my interactions, those which fall outside the lines of necessary business of course, my attention is more easily captured by the quantitative than the qualitative.  How do I mean?  E.g. on social media I am most apt to notice, amidst the long stream of data, whatever items are ‘getting play’ or getting a lot of feedback.  On facebook and in blogging, feedback can be interpreted by ‘likes’, ‘shares’ (or pingbacks), and ‘comments’ (as well we know).  In blogging we also measure traffic by views.

I believe that in choosing to maintain social interactions through these various mediums we intend to receive feedback.  This is the agony of media in general: we want quick and appropriate responses.  This extends even to conversations where language serves as the only medium — if we are not answered in kind, there is a natural communicative distress.  There is a certain validation in being answered in kind – in communicating meaningfully.


But when these are mediated by way of the internet, our expectations take on a quantitative aspect.  We can see displayed for us the gap in minutes since last our communication was answered.  Who has n’t experienced that awkward silence in texting or instant messaging.  In wordpress we can see how many hours it has been since the last visit to our site, which has been the most popular day, week, or month of traffic, and which has been the best trafficked or best ‘like’d post.  Does n’t this lead to a compounded distress?

Please do n’t misunderstand me (at least not too much), I see value in observing these statistics.  But I wonder if, when I ‘m either too high or too low due to the statistics, I ‘m measuring properly.


In terms of this blog, I ‘ve carved out my niche and have set in my own mind the measure of success (self-pingbacks make me feel a bit queasy, but narcissism versus nausea leaves no one a winner).  I can’t accurately measure success by traffic, followers, or comments because what I ‘m really seeking to do is consider things from the perspective where the various distresses of communication (not being answered in kind as only one example) are acknowledged and a fruitful dialogue ensues.  Few will find my insights interesting (of those who misunderstand me well enough) and perhaps fewer will find them helpful.  But for those who are open to a journey where we grow through miscommunicating well, there will hopefully be a space for meaningful communication.

I think other bloggers should carefully consider what it is they seek to accomplish because, as Dalrymple well notes, one may lend undue credit to one’s opposing philosophies by giving them voice where answering them with silence would better demonstrate how one answers such items.  The wise choice is, according to Proverbs 26:4&5, either to answer a fool according to his follyorto not.  Wisdom is demonstrated both in the choice (of answering in like or choosing not to) and in the manner with which one carries out her decision.


Asking oneself a few questions first is prudent and the article lists a few suggestions: decide if you are (or should be) addressing a controversy, if you have adequately digested the issues and if you are adding something meaningful, assess your motives, and do n’t forget you ‘re addressing people – so be compassionate.

As pertains to the article specifically, I appreciated Dalrymple’s honesty when he described how he enjoyed the thrill of success.  I can’t pretend (at least not well) that I do n’t get excited when the quantitative feedback suggests an upsurge of interest, but I ‘m mostly looking for feedback of a different sort and I ‘d do well to be distressed or thrilled with a more to-scale measure.  To my fellows distressed at the feedback you ‘re receiving, I recommend considering how your communication should be addressed.