Placing concreteness

by Carl Dyke

One of the things you figure out pretty quickly if you pay attention to what students say is that a lot of them engage with the materials we show them in a very concrete way. One example of that from today’s draft intro paragraph peer review session in World History was the student who kept trying to turn prompts on reconceptualizing its paragraph into a recipe for which words to say and how to arrange them. “What have you figured out about how conditions of trade changed?” became “How many times do I need to repeat the assignment topic phrase ‘conditions of work’?”

Lots of information in a pile, no analysis. A peer shrewdly asked if there were any people involved. So we got ‘Portuguese’ on the board. Then we talked about what kind of work. Trade, as it turned out. So we added ‘trading community’ to Portuguese. Another peer asked if the issue was storms at sea or political conflict. So ‘community’ got complicated to include seamen and kings, we added ‘conflict’, and broke out ‘political’, ‘economic’, and ‘social’. Was any of that sorted out in the draft paragraph? No, so it’s not about adding or moving a word or two, it’s about figuring out what you want to get at based on what you know. At the end the student came up and took a cellphone picture of the board.

Yesterday in the ‘bad literature’ seminar the group presenting on the religious erotica genre (their choice) were struggling with audience. It turned out they assumed that the people who read things are the people those things are about. So the audience for shocking erotica about monks boinking transvestite novices must be young Catholics considering the monastic life. I asked if the audience for Huckleberry Finn was orphans and runaway slaves, and whether they would respect me as a professor if the only books I read were about aging white male professors at nice little regional universities. They had brought up and passed over quickly points about authority and credit/discredit, so I prompted them to get a little more stubborn about developing those analyses. It didn’t take long to work out that an audience of non-Catholics might have reasons to be interested in literature discrediting Catholic authority.

Another fascinating assertion in that discussion was that because all fiction is based on fact, it might as well be treated as such. So the facts about a novel’s rhetoric and context can be read right off of the text. As a fan of science fiction I was tempted to ask about the factiness of phasers, warp drives, and Wookies, but time was running short so we deferred examination of creativity and imagination to our next meeting.

Incidentally, it has occurred to me that part of the problem with the concept of linked learning is that we can see courses, but we can’t see links. We can’t see learning, either, so it’s all very confusing.

(Crossposted at Attention Surplus.)

9 Comments to “Placing concreteness”

  1. I know I’m always on about the same topic, but this post brought to mind a post on the 13.7 blog:

    Mind, consciousness and intelligence are hard. From a scientific perspective, all three are products of the brain. There is matter and nothing else.

    I’m seeing this formulation of “materialism” a lot, and it feels to me like a kind of concreteness/process-blindness. “Physicalism”, to me, implies process, relation, interaction, extension over time. But you can’t see these things. Matter is something you can see.

    Also – Didn’t David Foster Wallace teach a bad literature seminar?

  2. “Incidentally, it has occurred to me that part of the problem with the concept of linked learning is that we can see courses, but we can’t see links. We can’t see learning, either, so it’s all very confusing.”

    Why don’t we see either links or learning? In one, largely perhaps fictional, past somewhere in the USA, there were things that every educated person was supposed to know: the Bible, Shakespeare, algebra, geometry, geography, biology, chemistry, physics, a narrow but shared version of state, US, and world (mostly European) history. Failure to know them was a stigma. Knowing more than others did was a marker of privileged status. It was all part of a package with implications that were pretty straightforward and easy to grasp.

    Several things have happened since.

    1. The democratization of education. The status signaling value and career-seeking advantage of degrees have declined.

    2. The proliferation of specializations described by Andrew Abbott in _Chaos of Disciplines_.

    3. Academic freedom—a good idea perverted to mean, if I am the teacher I can do whatever I want in the classroom.

    LInked learning must overcome the habits engrained by 3, in a situation exacerbated by 2, in a world where 1 means that the value of the whole educational enterprise is now in question. It’s a rough row to hoe, but somebody’s got to do it. Makes teachers like Carl a whole lot more valuable than they will ever get credit for.

  3. I see links all the time. But then, I’m a programmer, and we objectify all sorts of things. But HAHAs aside, it is true that many computer science students have tremendous difficulty learning pointers (or at least back in the days when they had to learn pointers). In my experience, and the experience of many other instructors, students either get pointers, or they don’t. End of story.

    For those not in the know, in a program, a variable name is an alias for a memory address where the data is stored. So instead of giving some awful looking memory address like 0x2FFF53BE7CB2A3A1 (in hexadecimal) we can write ‘quantity’ and let the computer worry about the (mostly irrelevant) details. A pointer is a special kind of variable the value of which can be interpreted as a memory address. my_pointer = &quantity; assigns the address of the variable quantity to my_pointer. If I printed the value of my_pointer it would be an address like I gave above. But if I dereference the pointer with the dereference operator *, I can manipulate the thing its pointing at: my_pointer* = 76 would assign the value 76 to the variable quantity, or more correctly, it writes the value 76 to the memory location which both the alias ‘quantity’ stands for, and which the pointer ‘my_pointer’ has as its value. Of course, pointers can point to…other pointers. Programming with pointers can feel like eating soup using hashi to hold your soup-spoon, that is, lots of fun, but hard to get anything done until you are bonafide ninja. (:

  4. “Of course, pointers can point to…other pointers.”

    Reminds me of the David Wheeler (I think) quote: “All problems in computer science can be solved by another level of indirection… Except for the problem of too many layers of indirection.”

  5. Yeah Asher, I’m just another track on the same broken record. Saying mind is ‘nothing but’ matter is like saying an education is ‘nothing but’ a course list. And that doesn’t mean it’s a mystical essence either. It’s that big relational midrange we’re interested in.

    JohnM, well diagnosed. I’m not sure how valuable I am, honestly, but I’m in a good niche at least.

    Jacob, that’s fascinating. I keep resisting the conclusion that some people just get it and some just don’t, because if we’re right getting it might be emergent.

  6. The value of concreteness in education is that it gives us (some) insight into what’s going on inside people’s heads. We can’t see “learning” but we can gather “evidence of learning,” which is almost always a slow and uneven process. “Metacognition” is a fine and valuable thing, but it seems so indirect that it can only be discerned retrospectively. It also seems produced most reliably by recursive returns to the “same” materials, so that students can describe the difference between their past and present understandings. In your example, you’re giving them opportunities for awareness about fiction and how they might understand that category more reflectively. The concrete is usually the only way that students will begin to challenge and move past their tacit or received understandings. That is why your discussion of audience (not monks and nuns?) had such impact.

  7. I’m late to the conversation, but the ideas above directly relate to my experience this semester with integrating archival research into an STS (Science, Technology & Society) seminar on technology transfer. As an archivist/librarian and as someone with a formal background in humanities and STS (which is inherently interdisciplinary) it seemed a No Duh to me to reach out to our humanities department to develop curriculum to get the undergrads into the archives. Apparently my No Duh was something no one had ever done before at our university.

    In part, this is because we are an engineering/tech school and there is an assumption that STEM undergrads will only engage in rote textbook learning. In part, it’s because before I was hired, the library did not have the budget for a trained archivist. The collections were unprocessed and essentially non-accessible. In part, it’s because I did a little bit of prep work about core concepts students should learn from archival research (like, read 7 journal articles) and thought about how a specific collection could relate to specific classes. Finally, I was lucky to find a professor who agreed primary source research was important and was willing to integrate archival research into his seminar. In sum: it required a bit of commitment, but it wasn’t difficult.

    Although the prof and I easily identified 5-6 research topics that related to the seminar and the collection, we decided to let the students pick their own topics rather than giving them strict assignments. We knew this approach could crash and burn, but also this was one of the concepts were wanted to teach. Some students entered the archives with a topic selected and then realized the collection would not support their preconceived notions. I told them, this is fine! So now, refine and move forward. Why did you assume this is what happened? Now, looking at the evidence in the collection, what do you think actually happened? Why do you think certain holes in the collection exist? Who created the collection? For whom were these brochures and photographs originally created– for clients? Who were the clients? Why were they the clients?

    By about the third trip to the archives, the cognitive switch was apparent. Instead of my prompts, the students were asking the questions. You could see them grasping the concept that history was not a wikipedia article (actually one student’s comment on the course evaluation); that our interpretations of history are not only complicated, but are fluid and conflicted. In the end, the responses from the class were overwhelming positive (especially coming from a writing-intensive course, which usually elicits heavy bitching). In the library, we struggle with the idea of how to engage non-humanities students (most of us coming from that background ourselves). I’m learning this is probably the result of our own blinders, not theirs.

  8. “I’m learning this is probably the result of our own blinders, not theirs.”

    That is awesome. When I did the public library banned-books thing, I was charmed and struck by how immediately, almost greedily the middle school students took to a process of recursive critical research: hypothesis testing, evidence-gathering, brainstorming, lather-rinse-repeat. Now granted, these were library rats just like yours are self-selected process geeks, but still, everything you say rings true to me. And at the moment, because I’m reading papers and journals from people who have been systematically railroaded away from this kind of thinking by dogmatic indoctrination (or perhaps rescued from their own mediocrity by it, always so hard to tell), it makes me both very hopeful and very sad.

  9. “Recursive” was a word I said quite a few times during planning and explaining the course to other librarians. So, yes, totally! Another thing, the prof was smart enough to point out that these are kids who will sit in the lab for hours, tinker with computer programs for for days; he framed the archives as laboratory and they were pretty good to go.

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