Category Archives: education

a voice from the past

So there I was, walking to work in March 2005, on a hilly woods path behind W&L, and talking out loud with a microphone attached to a digital recorder. And 14 1/2 years later I find the file at Archive.org, where I had uploaded it shortly before I retired, in September 2005. The recording is rambling and only about 4 minutes long, but I’m quite interested in hearing what I had to say about courses, about teaching, about learning. I could only wish that I’d continued to make recordings like that.
Here it is:

From my walk to work

Rocks from whom one learns


NFLDrock1

NFLDrock4

NFLDrock3

Last night I took this specimen along on a visit and our hostess said “oooh is this a gift?” and I was immediately protective. “Certainly not!” I said, and immediately regretted my vehemence in defense of my rock, as I hadn’t even photographed it yet. I did make its portrait today, and thus recognized a Lesson in Attachment—one I might have learned (but had clearly forgotten) with the Bodhidharma example cited at the end of the Morphic Resonance post. In what wise is this rock my rock? Why should I wish to hold on to it? Wouldn’t it be better to appreciate it and pass it on so that others could enjoy its verisimilitude? Isn’t it enough to have discovered its several personalities and felt its agency? Yes, yes, 10,000 times yes.

department of co-incidence

During a visit to Vashon Island, a series of unplanned conjunctions took me to the Vashon Bookshop for a half hour of browsing before our reservation at the marvelous May Kitchen and Bar. This book leapt into my arms:




Stephen De Staebler was my 9th grade history teacher (1957-58), and offered a high-energy version of World History to a class of 15 or so engaged and eager students. He also taught a class in stained glass for 5 of us, with lead and solder and glass cutters, the real deal. He was only at the school for a year, but was unforgettable for his contagious enthusiasm. He went on to become a well-known sculptor and teacher at San Francisco State, and died in 2011. His website (stephendestaebler.com) represents his work quite well. I was something between delighted and gobsmacked to discover a gallery of masks that presage my recent work with lithic personalities. At the very least, we draw upon the same mysterious vein of mimetic imagery (“a term used in literary criticism and philosophy that carries a wide range of meanings which include imitatio, imitation, nonsensuous similarity, receptivity, representation, mimicry, the act of expression, the act of resembling, and the presentation of the self” in its Wikipedia rendering). There’s also this quote to consider:

Much of art is play in the serious sense,
like magic, trying to restructure reality
so that we can live with the suffering.

-Stephen De Staebler, 1984

I’m not quite sure what to do with “the suffering” but I’m pleased to consider what he might mean. It’s the sort of responsibility one has toward one’s well-remembered teachers. Alas, there are only a couple of 9th grade classmates left who remember Steve De Staebler, and I wish I’d been able to convey my thanks to him for what he taught and what he Taught.

these parlous times

I read a fair bit of the increasingly panicked College Disgruntlement/Higher Education Futures stuff, and there’s a vast gulf between the Now and what I experienced 50 years ago… and even a pretty deep canyon between the Now and what I retired from a decade ago. In the landscape of cutbacks and Queen Sacrifice I see nothing that evokes hopeful feelings, and much that suggests that the Way, once seemingly so clear, has been lost irredeemably. The latest case in point is John Warner’s The Problem ASU is Solving, which ends thus:

…we should be clear, in a culture of free-market competition, where education is increasingly viewed as a private, rather than public good, and states are moving to divest themselves of the responsibility to support their public institutions, this is the future for those of us who will not be able to afford entry into what we will come to think of as the “legacy[3]” higher education system.

ASU’s moves like the edX initiative, or Starbucks partnership, are absolutely rational, probably even savvy in the culture we have constructed. They will likely be cheered by Wall Street and Silicon Valley because they present more opportunities for markets that can be disrupted and monetized.

That’s what we should be most terrified about.

[3] I use this word to connote multiple meanings, including the notion that only the children of the already educated, the legacies, will likely have access to such places.

Being about to participate in a multi-day 50th Reunion event at which the glories of a (perhaps the…) premier institution will be trumpeted (and alumni contributions solicited), and where symposia on the menu include “The Awakening of Wisdom–How Do We Experience and Practice It?” and “The Challenge of Taking Collective Action–Societal Meaning” … well, I’m struggling to get the whole thing to come into focus. Maybe I’ll encounter some Wise classmates, and surely there are quite a few who still have faith in Collective Action, but I don’t aspire to membership in either category. Best I can do is to resolve to play at participant observation, making notes and gathering data.

a bit from March 2004

I found this grumble I’d written 11 years ago, as I followed links in the hypertext mentioned in the last post. Still find it relevant:

Innovation
at small liberal arts colleges
is all but dead
except for independently/externally funded efforts
and rogue actions.
Administrations have insulated themselves
behind a smokescreen of
‘strategic planning’
which privileges risk avoidance
in the name of ‘management’.
Add more deans,
institute performance reviews,
emphasize assessment of instructional objectives.
Distrust visionaries.
Reduce creativity and experimentation with unpredictable outcomes.
Recline upon past laurels.

Faugh.

Clay Shirky lays it out for you

Clay Shirky summarizes today’s situation eloquently in The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age. A few of the choicest bits:

Decades of rising revenue meant we could simultaneously become the research arm of government and industry, the training ground for a rapidly professionalizing workforce, and the preservers of the liberal arts tradition. Even better, we could do all of this while increasing faculty ranks and reducing the time senior professors spent in the classroom. This was the Golden Age of American academia.

…so long as college remained a source of cheap and effective job credentials, our new sources of support—students with loans, governments with research agendas—were happy to let us regard ourselves as priests instead of service workers.

…Over the decades, though, we’ve behaved like an embezzler who starts by taking only what he means to replace, but ends up extracting so much that embezzlement becomes the system. There is no longer enough income to support a full-time faculty and provide students a reasonably priced education of acceptable quality at most colleges or universities in this country.

…Of the twenty million or so students in the US, only about one in ten lives on a campus. The remaining eighteen million –the ones who don’t have the grades for Swarthmore, or tens of thousands of dollars in free cash flow, or four years free of adult responsibility– are relying on education after high school not as a voyage of self-discovery but as a way to acquire training and a certificate of hireability.

Oh but I was fortunate to be in when I was, and to exit when I did…

and now some on Reading

Sometimes what I write in the basically 1:1 medium of email needs to be saved where I can find it more easily, and/or seems like it might want to be shared more widely, so I contrive some way to nudge the text into the semi-public medium of the blog. A continuing series of exchanges loosely centered on writing is a current example, and so I’m following up my post on Writing with yesterday’s thoughts tending toward Reading. Don’t know that I’ll ever refine these thoughts, but if I ever want to, I’ll be able to find where I started.

some surly thoughts

Eight years ago (as I was on the final approach to Retirement) I was wrestling with the discontinuity between my visions of Education in the liberal arts context and the gelid realities of liberal arts institutions. At that time I was in the habit of keeping running logs of thoughts and discoveries, and these four seem especially relevant to today’s thoughts:

  • How It Looks at the end of March 2005
  • Endgame (March-August 2005)

    …a place to accumulate odds and ends that have to do with preparing for retirement –ruminations, legacy stuff, things to do and not-do, etc. This is it. To some degree, it’s also a continuation of The Disgruntlement File, but the Watchword is/should be Fuggeddaboudit!, liberally applied, with a dash of Master Kung:

    The Master said, “To learn something and then put it into practise at the right time: is this not a joy?
    To have friends coming from afar: is this not a delight?
    Not to be upset when one’s merits are ignored: is this not the mark of a gentleman?”

    (Leys translation –but see the end of this page for other renderings of the passage)

  • SUMMARY from early June 2005
  • Ruminations on Infospace (10 June-4 August 2005)

In the nearly-eight intervening years my engagement in the scuffles and food fights of Education has waned to almost nothing –I still track some edublogs, but nowadays I don’t usually feel inclined to try to influence anybody (something I used to take pretty seriously) or even to post my thoughts in the quiet backwaters of this blogspace. In the last year or so I’ve watched the buzz about MOOCs go from mumble to frenzy, and I haven’t been provoked to register my own (jaundiced) opinions on this most recent version of The Emperor’s Clothes. Here’s the bit of what Cogdog said that got me started today:

I remain astounded that anyone with a fully functioning neocortex talking seriously about MOOCs being some model of saving educational costs when the word is each course rings up a tab of $250k (edx) or even more. What does an institution get for dropping a quarter of a million per course?

I can tell you what you do not get- an ongoing open sharing of the processes, of what worked, what did not work. Not a Udellian narrating of the process. It’s more like another loaf of pre-packaged Wonderbread off the racks.

And it ties back to what Leslie Madsen-Brooks recently summarized eloquently in using UMW as a case example of innovation on higher education. That’s right, look beyond the Ivies and the Silicon Valley darlings, and you land at a tiny, public liberal arts college in Virginia. Jim Groom writes it all in the title- the Innovation isn’t Technical, It’s Narrative.

I spent 6 months working at UMW thinking they had some magic in the water (did not taste any). But it’s a culture of open sharing, not the final products, but the makings thereof. It’s not a mindset of saying, “Look what we experts hand you like Greek gods”, it’s an ongoing narrative of trying, asking, failing, reflecting, of process, not just product.

Exactly. Ongoing narrative is precisely the Grail to which teachers and learners need to attend, and to which they need to commit themselves. I now think that it’s always been true (though I didn’t discover/realize it myself until maybe 20 years ago, after I made the leap from classroom to library), though we now have tools at our fingertips that make the individual narrative distributable and greatly broaden the possibilities of collaboration as a basic modality of education.

So once again I thank the lucky stars that I got out when I did.

Remembering a teacher, 50 years later

In my freshman year at Harvard I studied Swedish (Scandinavian B –there was no Scandinavian A) under Göran Printz-Påhlson, a pleasant if (as I thought) somewhat lumbering Swedish poet (I particularly remember that he wore leather jackets which creaked when he moved). He was a friendly and generous teacher, though I was too much in awe to actually seek him out and, well, converse. Just today I happened upon an electronic version of his Letters of Blood, and Other Works in English, and learned that he died in 2006. The introductory materials tell me some of what I missed by not, well, conversing.

Poetics is a subject of which I am largely ignorant, but a quick flip through the pages of the prose parts of the book suggests that I might enjoy discovering on some winter night when the snow howls without. And I’m mostly immune to poetry, though sometimes my attention is caught. And caught it is by some bits of Printz-Påhlson’s, like this from My Interview with I.A. Richards

Inversion is a counterfeit experience
there is but one irreversability.
Chestnuts, rabid squirrels, slosh and sleet,
the sullen, birdstained wisdom of John Harvard.

O Fyffes bananas, obscene planks,
the flexes bared to vision like the sinews
in Vessalius. I grope my way
through the intestines of heuristic house.

Last night we heard in Kresge Hall
a lion-vested English poet fulminate
like an under-paid volcano against Science,
applauded by a host of boffins.

Afterwards, a girl called Shirley took my hand
and wished to lead me through the maze
toward the magus posing there as Tannhäuser,
fettered with electric wires in a great maidenform…

and here’s the whole of Songs of Dock Boggs

There are gridiron reverberations
in the hills, sourmash
blandishments bleating
from the sheriff’s office

Ah, the gavroche innocence of a barnyard rape!

He offers a smile, mild
as pick-axe handles a
mile wide which kindles
the hide of rutabaga;
their red necks swabbed
by cool, pale blue grass
in the abstracted stare of poverty
Bushwacking the melodies of God
for the breakdown of bushfires
he nurtures illustrious health
with the grating pap
of pink indulgence,
plucking the lure of life
from the audible mouchoir moment
when distant authority suppurates
the blueridge landscapes of childhood.

Raw death: a clodhopper shovel
smack in the kisser.

and from The Lyndon Baines Johnson Lavatory Seat Refurbishing Rightwinding Leftbranching Recursive Selfperpetuating Paradox Memorial

Here I sit thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, smoking some grass, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, sticking my middle in, smoking some grass, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, waiting for the end, entertaining a friend, bridging a loan, blowing my horn, sucking my stick, flexing my prick, farting through my ring, sticking my middle in, smoking some grass, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.