Category Archives: education

Academic vs. Popular

This is pretty obvious, but I don’t think I’ve seen it so clearly stated:

Academic historians now write almost exclusively for one another and focus on the issues and debates within the discipline. Their limited readership —many history monographs sell fewer than a thousand copies— is not due principally to poor writing, as is usually thought; it is due instead to the kinds of specialized problems these monographs are trying to solve. Since, like papers in physics or chemistry, these books focus on narrow subjects and build upon one another, their writers usually presume that readers will have read the earlier books on the same subject; that is, they will possess some prior specialized knowledge that will enable them to participate in the conversations and debates that historians have among themselves. This is why most historical monographs are often difficult for general readers to read; new or innocent readers often have to educate themselves in the historiography of the subject before they can begin to make sense of many of these monographs.

The problem at present is that the monographs have become so numerous and so refined and so specialized that most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives. Thus the academics have generally left narrative history-writing to the nonacademic historians and independent scholars who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive monographic literature that exists.

(Gordon S. Wood “The Real Washington at Last” NYRB 9 Dec 2010)

All too accurate

via Stephen Downes:

…and he gets it in one:

…the selection of what constitutes a core is ineliminably political, and therefore all (so-called) ‘common’ core initiatives are (thinly disguised) political campaigns…

At the moment I’m seeing the Grand Problem as one of motivation, given that learners of all ages HAVE magnificent and unprecedented tools at the tips of their fingers. Who will they choose to emulate? Who provides the spark that ignites an individual learner’s creativity? For most of us, that person was a Teacher, formal or informal, in school or out.


In spite of my cold-oatmeal attitudes toward Education and IT, I do continue to follow the doings of people whom I know to be On The Right Track, among whom I include Stephen Downes, Bryan Alexander, CogDog, GeekyMom, and Brian Lamb. The most recent posting at Abject Learning quotes Stephen Downes and is worth reading for itself, but it also echoes what I’m finding in John Thorne this morning:

I have written before –most specifically when recounting my wood-fired bread oven adventures– that I do not take instruction gladly. Push a book in my hand and tell me I just have to read it and chances are it will be a decade before I can bear to pick it up… Facts only interest me when they are pieces to a puzzle I have already decided to assemble, and I would rather find them after hours of rooting around in a junkyard than have them handed to me on a plate. (page 29, Mouth Wide Open)

Cooking, learning… pretty much the same Thing, innit?

On teachers, and teaching

I still find myself gnawing on the old bones of what it is to Teach, and to Learn. Now and again a ray of clarity breaks through the fug, and today’s case in point is Daniel Holz’ Ave atque Vale in honor of John Archibald Wheeler, the link for which was forwarded to me by Nick. I’ve known a couple of Teachers of that too-rare sort, and it’s worth considering why there aren’t more of them… what it is about the institutions that (occasionally) contain such wonders that doesn’t nourish their development, and reward their enterprise.

Didja say where you got it? (a propos of Appropriation)

If I still had a classroom to work in, I’d devote several classes (hell, why not a whole course? …though under which rubrics I ain’t sure…) to the issues discussed in the Plagiarism episode of Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge, featuring interviews with Jonathan Lethem, DJ Spooky [That Subliminal Kid], Judge Richard Posner, and Malcolm Gladwell. The hour of talk and examples is absolute must listening for those whose lives are entangled with teaching-and-learning.

I’ll also remind you of a posting from almost a year ago, pointing to Christopher Lydon’s interview with Jonathan Lethem, and (if Harper’s will let non-subscribers see it) to Lethem’s article The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism (Harper’s, Feb 2007).

Just a few teasers from the WPR show:

“Art comes not out of the void, but out of chaos” (1:35)
Barthes to Twain to Emerson to Lethem (1:55)
“the software that we use to edit is just as much a part of the artwork, you know?” (1:00)
“it’s like playing with respect for the history of things” (0:55)

snowball gathers mass and speed

Here’s what occurred as I unfroze pipes and washed dishes: cultivate the Art of Contextualizing Juxtaposition, spinning out the stories liberated by juxtapositions, and encouraging others to play at doing the same. In the context of teaching-learning, it’s encouraging students to MAKE things; whether they’re haiku or collage or mashup or essay matters less than the evolving taste for making and mooting own expression, in [semi-] public space. The essential is that the instructor be seen to be doing the very same thing.

A snowball perched on a hilltop

Sometimes a confluence of quite disparate influences provokes a blog posting that bursts out into a new vector of interest and attention. One never knows when that’s going to strike, and sometimes it comes to nothing: having stricken, moves on. At the moment, the bits that seem to be shouldering their way to the fore are:

  • Scott Atran’s rumination on fictive kinship (perhaps you have to be an anthropologist to jump at a title with ‘fictive kinship’ in it, but read on…)
  • Scott Horton’s quoting of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” at (dunno if you have to be a Subscriber to see it, but if so the text is here), which is known to one and all as a cliché [“Good fences make good neighbors’], but not generally attended for its other Messages, or for its geological and New England landscape Verities
  • the delicious richness of Gardner Campbell’s working toward the coming term, and the wonderful prospect afforded by his vow to blog daily. His use of sound clips is, well, exemplary, and his choice of quotations goes unerringly to my heart. I mean, jeez, who else juxtaposes Jerome Bruner

    A curriculum is more for teachers than it is for pupils. If it cannot change, move, perturb, inform teachers, it will have no effect on those whom they teach.

    and Paul Greenglass

    …freedom, improvisation, the moment, the… the thing that happens in front of your camera that you didn’t predict…”

These seem to be parts of a bigger Something that’s taking shape in my mind. Stay tuned while I figure this out…