Archive for ‘boring stuff about me’

October 11, 2012

Text, subtext, and ‘accessibility’

by Carl Dyke

I just realized, silly me, that I’m a subtext Nazi. As a trained critical reader in the human studies, history / sociology / anthropology, I pretty much assume that most of what I’m interested in will be in the subtext. Because as Wittgenstein remarks, “the aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.”

And as a ‘sophisticated’ reader of cultural product, I expect to have my intelligence challenged by puzzles of interpretation. I am immediately put off by overly-expository presentation, which strikes me as crude and amateurish. If I’m being told the plot and the characters are soliloquizing their backstories within the first five minutes / pages, I’m out. In fact, I really don’t want to be told that stuff at all – I want it to emerge from the dynamics of a more subtle, dare I say lifelike development.

Here is no doubt where my visceral disgust with the discourses and judgments of ‘accessibility’ comes from. It’s all just so vulgar, and I mean that with all the sniffy poindexter class warfare pique I can pack into that nasty little word. Who needs things to be obvious? Stupid people, obviously. Or lazy people, but definitely not people I want on my team.

In my reading circles the students struggle at first with ‘difficult’ texts in which the characters do not reveal themselves immediately, the plot is joined in medias res, and perspectives or timelines are nonlinear. Pretty much anything ‘literary’ knocks them into a resentful funk. But these are students – they are ignorant, not stupid, and we’re here to fix ignorance. Their expectations are all textual, so they don’t know how to feel about the mysteries of subtext. I make their frustration explicit – the author is playing them, making fun of them. Here’s another way to think about it – the author is respecting your intelligence, not saying every little thing, trusting you to work it out. Turns out they’re mostly not lazy either, they just don’t feel authorized to read between the lines. May even feel that it’s rude. Which in lots of everyday contexts, it is.

Let’s think of this as a workout for our brains, I say. Is it a good workout if it doesn’t make you sweat? Do you see results immediately when you work out? Is it worth it in the longer run to have a mind that can handle a heavier load? What would be the advantages of being someone who doesn’t need to be told every little thing – the bird that can find its own worms rather than needing someone else to chew them up and spit them down you?

So, is this class war?

September 16, 2012

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

by Carl Dyke

Promoting a comment on a previous post to start off this post: I’ve been baking a lot of bread lately. I’d dabbled before, but I started getting a bit serious about yeast-wrangling. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the process, discussion boards and so on. The thing that gets (or should get) really clear really quickly is that a ‘recipe’ just barely gets you started. And you can talk about the biochemistry of yeast and lactobacilli and hydration ratios and such and it’s very illuminating. And you can provide guidelines about kneading and folding techniques and rates, and what the dough ought to look and feel like at various stages. All of that is awesome and a great start. But in relation to actually working up a dough it’s all ridiculously overelaborated and kind of beside the point. There are some things you want to mix together in rough rates, proportions and timings. There’s a way they should look and feel. You do stuff until you get that look and feel. What stuff you do exactly depends on what it felt like when you did that other thing a second ago. Maybe you fold, maybe you stretch, maybe you pull, maybe you push. And if you do that, and trust the process and set up the yeast to do its thing and don’t try to impose your will on it, you end up with delicious bread. If you don’t, you post frantic questions on discussion boards about why you didn’t get a crown or why your crumb is too dense or whatever.

Teaching is the same, except in this case the recipe is the syllabus. So when colleagues think they’ve communicated what their class is by sharing their syllabus, I just hang my head.

In my experience there’s a kind of porno for eggheads quality to syllabus-sharing. Ooooh, check out the size of that reading list! As I just said in commenting on Tim Burke’s recent post asking for feedback on his intriguing draft syllabus for a course called “Bad Research and Informational Heresies,” a reading list and its associated assignments are not very helpful to me for envisioning a class. Those parts are aspirational and maybe even outright fantasies, as I remarked there. All sorts of reading lists and assignments can work or not work, but that depends on the teaching and learning relationship, that is, not just the recipe but what teacher(s) and students do with it, which in turn depends on a complex of dispositions, expectations, practices and relationships that have to be worked through in each case and that can’t be forced based on preconceptions of what college/teaching/students are supposed to be. Is it possible to say anything useful about those variables in a syllabus? Well, I’ve been trying to gradually get better at that over the years – if you’re curious, here’s this semester’s World History syllabus:


Not much of a reading list, I’m afraid, but lots of other things I wonder what folks think of.

July 11, 2012

Why I hate David Foster Wallace and all he stands for

by Carl Dyke

I don’t actually hate DFW. In fact if you just look at the big biographical generalities – son of philosophy professor, tennis player, professor in turn, smartass – and leave out the brilliance, the voice-of-a-generation fame and the suicidal depression (I’m not brilliant or famous enough to be suicidally depressed, so I just get mopey sometimes) we’re pretty much the same guy. Well, I also don’t use my middle name, which always strikes me as just a little desperate, if you know what I mean, although I am periodically aware that there are perfectly good reasons for doing so.

But anyhow, to keep circling around the point without quite getting to it as I gather DFW often did, until recently DFW was in that place in the dusty warehouses of my attention economy occupied by the things people have been a little too insistent I should check out, a place also occupied by Hemingway, Khalil Gibran, “E.T.,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and for reasons that would take a lot of tedious explaining, Cointreau. Things perhaps of substantial intrinsic merit, but already shown by the form of the recommendation, even in their absence, to lend themselves to conversations of awkward and unpleasant intensity, not to mention unearned intimacy. The sort of conversations I imagine a more-brilliant-and-famous-than-me and eventually-suicidally-depressed DFW being cornered into often by great needy masses of folks who thought he owed them a little piece of himself because he had gotten them all excited and they took it personally.

So, I reluctantly broke the seal on DFW because links to his writings on tennis turned up in the last post (thanks a bunch, Glasperlenspiel and Duncan). They are brilliant in analysis and arguably form; the form being arguable because even in short format he does all the meandering some people didn’t like about Dyke the Elder’s Deacon piece. And as far as I can tell for the same reason – because the simple thing he’s writing about turns out to be quite complex, and rather than try to linearize that complexity he walks around checking it out and remarking on it from various angles. Which means that although there are various things to be taken away from his pieces, ‘the point’ is not among them.

In his piece on Federer DFW says what I wanted to say in my Federer post, only more wittily, elegantly and comprehensively. It’s an exemplary case study of constraint causation, and if I’d known about his piece before I wrote mine I’d be a bad plagiarizer. In his piece on Michael Joyce he oddly enough says more wittily, elegantly and comprehensively what I wanted to say in my Anne-Marie Slaughter post. I’ll pause on this one for a second because DFW does something specifically interesting and encouraging to me here, which is talk about Joyce’s tennis game, and life, using the metaphor of ‘compression’:

Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a paradox. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art — something few of us get to be.

The resonance for me is that this is exactly the metaphor I chose in my dissertation to talk about early 20thC Marxist revolutionary theories. And furthermore, DFW and I seem to be getting at a similar thing, which is that a kind of strategic narrowing focus at all sorts of good things’ expense seems to be necessary to get exceptional things done, whether that be winning tennis shots or smashing the state. Or running America’s foreign affairs, or growing good coffee. Marx’s theory itself is rich with analytical complexity, much too much in fact to get you cleanly to any particular practice – so folks like Lenin figured out soon enough that you had to cut some knots to make a revolution. And to get the theory sharp enough to do that job you had to compress the complexities out and then grind what was left to a hard edge; which of course is where your Stalins and Pol Pots and so on step in – not to say professional athletes are mass murderers, but just that the means of achieving that degree of efficacy seem to be analogous, and the worth-it-ness of it in human terms similarly questionable.

So anyway, I now personally see the appeal of DFW, who I officially give the CED-2 Seal of All-That Approval ™. But I must admit that by the end of the second piece I was finding some of his more personal digressions a little precious (what, you see an irony?), and then I made the mistake of reading his thing on the Maine Lobster Festival, which apart from a couple good one-liners is almost unbearably precious and obtuse, creating in my mind a concern that one might encounter more of this DFW-at-his-worst if one read further into the part of his oeuvre unanchored to non-fiction cases about which he knew and cared a whole bunch. So if a copy of Infinite Jest falls in my lap somehow I may well give it a try, but otherwise it’s back to the warehouse with him.

February 14, 2012

Aggregate, Arrange, Assemble

by Carl Dyke

Today I had an ambitious day. I described paper writing to my intro World History sections as a process of aggregation, arrangement and assembly similar to the formation of stars as they collect atoms, compact them to fusion and burst forth in light. Then I told them about the episode of “Trailer Park Boys” in which Ricky breaks into a house to pick out an engagement ring for Lucy (aggregation = research), swallows the ring so he won’t get caught by the cops and throws it up again once they’re gone (arrangement = analysis), then hands it to Lucy and says “So, you want to get married or something?” (assembly = writing).

We talked about what’s wrong with stealing the ring (this would be the ‘plagiarized’ paper) and whether making Ricky a Viking who ‘plundered’ rather than ‘stole’ it made a difference. We considered why Lucy might have preferred a more ritualized arrangement of their eventual assembly, concluding that in this case the value of ritual lay at least in part in its enactment of focused competence and commitment in making arrangement for the assembled couple’s needs. It’s about credibility. We all agreed that the same ring might be stolen, plundered, bought or fabricated, transported in one’s guts or a velvet box, delivered via slingshot or placement in a glass of champagne, with each permutation of aggregation, arrangement and assembly making a significant difference in the meaning and value of ‘the same’ ring.

I took out some nice artisan multigrain bread I had aggregated to myself earlier and ate some. We talked about the process of chewing and digestion whereby the previous arrangement of the bread is broken down, rearranged into more directly nourishing compounds and waste, and ultimately reassembled into poo and me. We laughed a bit about making sure that these two assemblages not become mixed, and considered the consequences of substituting Skittles for bread in one’s regular diet. We talked about the paper that would result from just vomiting the bread back up or pooping it out without nutritional processing.

They may not immediately have digested all this, but they were intrigued and I had lots of fun.

February 1, 2012


by Asher Kay

That’s right, bitches.

My life has changed several times since I last dropped a disemboweled little critter on this blogospheric porch-step. But recently, I came face-to-face with a vole that has been hiding out around my place for years, nocturnally rooting through the garbage bin and occasionally scaring all the cats. It’s not one of those eensy voles either — this one is a monster. It’s so brobdingnagian that I will need to dismember it and carry it piece-by-bloody-piece to the patio window.

But I’m not going to do it in the annoyingly metaphorical style of the previous paragraph. Nor will I use words like “brobdingnagian”. I don’t even like that word.

Okay, so this is a sort of teaser post. All of the setup and none of the stunts.

Have you ever read a book that seemed to know what you’d been thinking about for the last five years? I’ve read about half of one, and it is Incomplete Nature, by Terrence Deacon.

About two years ago, I did a post here called Causation, Reduction, Emergence, and Marbles. It was mostly about reductionism and predictability, but I had this to say about causality:

My stance is that causality is really a much, much looser concept than physical science would make it seem. Over time, physical science has corralled causality into a smaller and smaller area — but that area is occupied by some pretty inscrutable things — things like “forces”, which end up being mostly tautological at a paradigmatic level (“it’s a force because it makes things move — it makes things move because it’s a force”), and metaphorically hinky at the level of theory (gauge bosons as “virtual particles”).

So when we think about the neuronal “causing” the mental, we usually have in mind some sort of physical-science-like efficient causality, because that’s what we see as operating at the molecular level of description that neural networks inhabit.

But the question is — why are there multiple levels of organization at all? Is reality really separated into strata of magnification, with causality operating horizontally within a layer and vertically between layers? If so, are the vertical and horizontal causalities the same *kind* of causality?

Basically, I was thinking about an old argument amongst emergentists about the possibility of “downward causality”. There are tons of problems with the notion of downward causality, but my particular problem was the difficulty of thinking about a model of emergent, stratified reality in which nothing more than the standard, modern, efficient causality of the physical sciences played a part. It’s so difficult to think about that it’s hard to even figure out why it’s so difficult to think about. It’s the kind of problem that makes you start to wonder if maybe we just don’t really have a firm understanding of causality. But in a world where we can annihilate a couple hundred thousand people in an instant with our notion of causality, this is pretty much a heretical thought — or at least the kind of thought you don’t feel comfortable entertaining until you’ve done some post-graduate work in particle physics.

Despite the discomfort, I entertained the thought, in a playfully non-rigorous way. If you allow that there might be additional sorts of causation, you’re free to change the model around (or abandon it) and see what you come up with. My suspicion was that the additional sort of causality, if there was one, had to be related to the fact that in complex dynamical systems (or self-organized systems, or “emergent” systems), there are a lot more parts interacting and relating to one another than there are in the sort of billiard-ball examples we tend to imagine when thinking about efficient causality. And if that was the case, then the additional sort of causality was essentially mereological, since the cross-strata nature of this causality would be tied up with the relation of the parts to the whole system. The key to that, in my opinion, was the idea of “constraint”. To me, this was sort of like the flip side of an efficient cause. A constraint can be thought of as a causal “force” in that it disallows a dynamical system from occupying certain positions in the system’s state-space.

You can see me start to fiddle with the idea of constraint in the comments section of the same post. I say things like:

What I’m beginning to think is that causality is emergent in the same way that properties like “transparency” or “consciousness” are emergent. At the subatomic level, we have all these efficient causes (weak and strong, electromagnetic, gravitational), but at higher level, different sorts of causality actually emerge — larger “forces” that act mainly as “constraints of organization”. So what I’m trying to think through is how we can look at “organization” as causality. I think this will end up helping me to conceptualize levels of organization in a way that places them in the “real world”.


I agree, though on the need for a careful mereological/emergence distinction. In a sense, maybe it’s the same thing as a distinction between causality and “relation”. If so, the idea of causality as “constraint” could help in formulating the distinction.

The ideas I was expressing were obviously not well-developed then, but the basic line of thought was: 1) questioning whether we really understood causality in complex systems; 2) the suspicion that the current model wasn’t adequate to emergent systems at a higher level; and 3) the notion that the idea of constraints could help in re-working the model.

So now it’s two years and some odd months later, and I discover that Terrence Deacon has a new book out (this is a very exciting thing for me — his last book, The Symbolic Species, is one of my all-time favorites, and it was published in 1997). The book is ostensibly about “How Mind Emerged From Matter”, but since it’s Deacon, you can pretty much count on it being about a whole lot more.

And it is. It’s about emergence and causality and, best of all, constraint. There’s even a whole chapter called “Constraint”!

Take a moment to imagine my joy.

I’m only a little more than halfway through the book, but I’m starting to think that Deacon has actually found a way to re-think the model. His approach is strange, tortuous, detailed, counter-intuitive, and involves the same sort of mind-blowing figure/background switch he performed in The Symbolic Species. Here’s just a little taste:

The concept of constraint is, in effect, a complementary concept to order, habit, and organization, because it determines a similarity class by exclusion. Paying attention to the critical role played by constraints in the determination of causal processes offers us a figure/background reversal that will turn out to be critical to addressing some of the more problematic issues standing in the way of developing a scientific theory of emergence. In this way, we avoid assuming that abstract properties have physical potency, and yet do not altogether abandon the notion that certain general properties can produce other general properties as causal consequences. This is because the concept of constraint does not treat organization as though it is something added to a process or to an ensemble of elements. It is not something over and above these constituents and their relationships to one another. And yet it neither demotes organization to mere descriptive status nor does it confuse organization with the specifics of the components and their particular singular relationships to one another. Constraints are what is not there but could have been, irrespective of whether this is registered by any act of observation.

What I’m planning to do (and it may take a while) is create a series of posts on the ideas Deacon puts forth in Incomplete Nature. If the quote is not enough of a teaser, I will add that the journey involves the number zero, a  partial resurrection of Aristotle, boxes full of air, Charles Sanders Pierce, at least four neologisms, the siren-song of mereology, and a totally new perspective on object-oriented philosophy.

Stay tuned, beotches.

April 22, 2011

…and the look of real wood!

by Carl Dyke

Please excuse the visual confusion. I’m trying to add feeds from other blogs, and the sidebar was already wicked cluttered, so I needed to change the theme to one that has more widget fields. As an unexpected bonus I kind of like about this theme that it gets more content into the front page at once, so multiple posts/authors can be ‘up’ at the same time. Let me know if you like or hate what you see.

March 29, 2011

Ka-Blamo, Not Ka-Blamo

by Carl Dyke

So at the moment I’m teaching six classes and taking a seventh. As the boys say, that’s a real mixed blessing.

November 25, 2010

Happy accidents

by Carl Dyke

I am a firm believer in the happy accident. I may have said this before. I don’t mean purely random serendipity. Any dipity-shit can get that sometimes, but mostly not. I mean the sort of emergent event where a loose collection of good elements collated in a loosely enabling process dynamically configure in an unexpectedly, even unexpectably delightful way.

I think it’s possible (by definition, see above) to arrange things so there are more happy accidents, and fewer. The single best way to minimize the possibility of happy accidents is to carefully control everything about the inputs and processes of a situation. In academe one regularly sees this in curriculum and syllabus design, where ponderous machineries of micromanagement are deployed to assure that an outcome better than bad and worse than good occurs. In contrast, a happy accident-friendly situation is characterized by a certain flexibility toward both input and processes. “The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous,” Shunryu Suzuki says (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind). Divergence from norms and ideals must be tolerated, even encouraged (selectively and not infinitely, to be sure) on the theory that it’s precisely norms and ideals that are inhibiting the happy accident. Just one of many reasons to be traitorous towards norms and ideals.

Although I pretty much run my life according to the happy-accidental principle of assembling good elements and letting them do their thing, two recent moments brought this into focus for me. The first, about which I’ll need to be vague to protect a personal and collective privacy, happened in one of my classes. As usual we’ve noodled around quite a bit and I’ve tolerated/encouraged all sorts of tangents to cultivate a spirit of investigation and to see where they might go. The other day it all came together in a moment where one of the students made a series of personal revelations that in context were so striking, and so helpful to our understanding of the world around us, that for a moment the class became more than it could possibly have been if I had strictly dictated content and process. Over the course of the semester we had all learned some things together, developed a group process, and established a trust without which this moment wouldn’t have been possible. But any given class meeting might well have seemed like a complete waste of time to a conventional observer.

The second moment was watching a movie Rachel and I quite like, “The Fall,” through the lens of the director’s commentary. Tarsem talks about a process of creation taking 17 years, in which he patiently assembled influences, techniques, collaborators, locations, and favors due. The catalyst was a young Romanian actress to play the lead. Tarsem and the other actors provided a stimulating immersive environment, then allowed her to improvise creatively within that loose structure and bring all the elements together into an imaginative whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

So many great things work like this: jazz, inspired oratory, the Iron Chef, Dutch soccer. As Picasso said, “creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

October 8, 2010

Source analysis: contemporary world history

by Carl Dyke

In lieu of my usual wise and witty posting I thought some of you might be interested to see what I’m up to lately in meatworld. The following is a repost from a blog (hidden from search engines) I set up for my current Contemporary World History class. We’ve been rambling our way through the analysis for the last few meetings; at the moment how the map and the poster go together is starting to click.

Please do play along if you’re so inclined!

*Here are a few sources for us to analyze. Take a look at them and see what you can figure out about what they tell us. We will discuss them in class, and that discussion will go better the more thinking you’ve done in advance. Of course comments here and/or on your own blogs are welcome!

The first source is a map of the ethnic zones of Kenya, a country in East Africa formerly under the colonial rule of Great Britain.

Ethnic map of Kenya

This next image is a Chinese propaganda poster from the Vietnam War:

Resolutely support the American people in their resistance against American imperialist aggression in Vietnam

The final document is the first page of a declassified CIA analysis of options to destabilize the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. As with each of these documents, find out more by clicking on the image.

CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals 1952-1954

Bonus: this is current, funny, and thought-provoking. Find the Telegraph’s report on it here.

July 8, 2010


by Carl Dyke

One of the basic misconceptions about ‘global warming’ is that there should be a smooth upward trend of temperatures all over. A cold winter means it can’t possibly be warming. But actually climate is made up, as I’ve recently learned, by a whole mess of coupled quasi-oscillators, systems that swing through a series of states tending toward return to origins (seasons), but with drift. In this case the drift is the warming, but the oscillation means that at moments in the linked oscillation parts of the system may well be swinging low while other parts are swinging up.

I was sitting outside just now playing a game I grimly enjoy with a simple natural quasi-oscillator, the mosquito. I have this tennis-racquet-looking device that uses batteries and a metal mesh to deliver a mild but mosquito-killing shock. In the process of getting good at killing mosquitos, first with my hands and then with this newfangled mosquitocidal contraption, I’ve noted that mosquitos’ basic move while feeding is to oscillate. They loop back and forth around a target area, drawing nearer and swinging farther until the coast clears, at which point they shorten the period of oscillation down to a landing. With feeding mosquitoes, like climate, there is no straight point-to-point flight.

Because the mosquitoes’ period and amplitude of oscillation vary their flight can look random, but it’s not – it’s non-linear but quite orderly. This makes mosquitoes almost as hard to track and swat as a purely random path, but pure randomness wouldn’t get them food. So my tender white flesh is an attractor (perhaps a strange one) around which the mosquitoes oscillate, reacting to movement and opportunity by swinging out or swinging in, with the oscillations drifting toward a meal.

Waving the killer doohickey around randomly will occasionally intersect one of these paths, but what works way better is to swing it back and forth in the same oscillating pattern as the mosquitoes, only slightly faster than them so that the linked oscillations have the chance to intersect on both the way out and the way in. If you’ve ever tried to stop someone (maybe yourself) on a swing you know how this works. You want to be pushing forward while the swing’s going back, and back when it’s going forward. Get this counter-period wrong and you just amplify the swing or knock the swinger on his ass.

Can we do something like this on a global scale with ocean currents, gas concentrations, absorbtive/ablative surfaces, butterfly wings and so on to manage the climate? Wow. Well anyway, be sure to turn off the lights when you leave.

May 27, 2010

Clue processing disorder

by Carl Dyke

Old-school parenting expert John Rosemond takes on the newfangled neurological diagnosis “Sensory Processing Disorder” in this week’s column. Rosemond, who is generally against the trend to turn every little behavioral inconvenience into an acronymed medical condition, reports on a child who was officially diagnosed with this disorder because, in part, she didn’t like her underpants. The good doctor instead diagnosed a case of ‘defiance’, and prescribed a fuss- and distraction-free bedroom environment in which the child was required to stay until she was dressed in whatever she wanted to wear.

Two weeks later, I received the following email from Mom: ‘The very first morning, (daughter) reminded us to remove her sleep toys so she could get dressed. She then put on underwear and clothes and came out for breakfast. She has done this with no tantrums or requests for help since we began two weeks ago.’

At this writing, it’s been five weeks since this little girl complained of her clothes not feeling right.

Like Rosemond, I am neither qualified nor prepared to pronounce definitively on the existence of a neurological disorder in sensory processing. Just as I have only personal observation, anecdata and cherry-picked social-psychological theory with which to doubt the neurological foundations of many cases of ‘attention deficit disorder’. It is my general impression that all but the extreme fringes of the survivable human input-output spectrum respond adequately to well-modulated social interaction (that’s what they’re built for, after all) and learned behavior. I do however think that there’s a certain practical value to the current trend of medical diagnoses, since they offer access to some very powerful social experiences.

In any event, what struck me about the little girl’s story was how familiar it was. Distraction-proofing the work environment, putting her in charge of her own process, while creating performance accountability, is exactly how I finally got my dissertation done after several years of fairly creative stalling. It’s also how I get stacks of student papers graded nowadays.

This is also a pretty good model for education and other independent or independentable performances, I think, which means that in a roundabout way I am agreeing with much of what John Doyle says in his current series of posts on educational reform, e.g. “Stop Paying Professors to Teach.”

May 7, 2010

An obsessive consistency

by Carl Dyke

I suppose most good teachers wonder if they’re reading and grading students’ work consistently and fairly. Because I allow students to rewrite the first papers of the term (and all failing papers) I have a kind of opportunity to check myself on that. Many rewrites are perfunctory or spotty, so regularly I’m rereading the same stuff I read the first time. With seventy or so papers to read at once I certainly don’t remember each one, so functionally I’m reading it anew. And although I require the original version to be attached to the rewrite, I do not automatically check it over before I start reading the new version.

I’m working through a stack of rewritten papers right now, and just had a not infrequent Aha moment: I wrote a comment in the margin of one then, curious, checked the original. Beside the exact same sentence there was the exact same comment, in the exact same wording. I’m feeling pretty consistent right now.

This begs the question whether I’m just consistently biased, which I will admit is true. I am biased toward what I consider ‘good’ papers, and I have embedded those biases in explicit assessment criteria in the syllabus and grading rubric. It also more disturbingly raises the question whether I am wasting my and the students’ time commenting on the papers, or commenting in the way I do. In the sense that the students feel attended to and accept the legitimacy of the grade, I think the comments do their job. But I’d like them to be guides to better performance, which in these cases has clearly not paid off. In other cases it does, as I can also see from the rewrites; and where it doesn’t, it seems to be the students who are used to lots of grammatical red ink and baffled by questions about the actual content of their essays. So there, the comments may not pay off directly, but contribute in a small way to developing a new habit of mind about the communicative functions of writing. Or so I’d like to think.

March 23, 2010

Quality enhancement

by Carl Dyke

Our accrediting agency requires a “quality enhancement plan” (QEP) because nothing is perfect and everything can be improved. We settled on a program to create a culture of reading. And no, you can’t take that for granted at American universities. Here’s a poster I posed for to promote the cause:

The book I’m holding upside-down is Postmodernism for Beginners. The t-shirt says “Don’t Wanna.” By the way, at first I thought the committee-produced slogan “get between the covers” was harmless enough in a nerdy teehee kind of way, but it turns out to be catastrophic in both directions at once: it’s nerdy enough to turn off the students; yet it offends the prudes.

February 8, 2010

Relative (in)competence

by Carl Dyke

I spent much of the winter break re-tiling the kitchen floor. It was a moment in a general experience I have as a home do-it-yourselfer, the ‘man of average mechanical ability’. Each new thing that needs doing is something I’ve never done before. I have to learn principles and techniques from scratch, take way too long because I’m unsure of myself, and still make all the newbie mistakes. By the time I’ve internalized the rules of the job and started to get a feel for its practice, I’m done and probably won’t be doing it again soon enough for the acquisition to stick.

Rachel and I first tiled the floor back when we were friends before we hooked up. She had done some tiling at a resort she worked at in Maine and at her Mom’s, so she had a pretty good idea what to do. As a result, we did it almost right. It turns out that tile is one of those things where almost is importantly not good enough.

Tile is very hard and durable, but it has almost no flex. This means it will work itself loose or/and break where a more resilient material would absorb and dissipate force. Therefore it really matters to get the underlayment smooth, firm and level. We knew this, so we popped for the special tile underlayment panels and screwed them firmly to the subflooring. The underlayment is basically a thin, hard sheetrock with a mesh matrix. It turns out to be a little tricky to get the screws all the way set into it. It’s a bit more than a power screwdriver can handle and forearms/backs start to cramp up after muscling dozens of screws. Like so many things about such jobs, if you did this for a living you’d work it out, but we don’t and didn’t.

We figured a slight screwhead protrusion here and there would not be a problem because they’d be small and buffered by the mortar. That turns out not to be reliably true. Over time any play there is in the floor (and there’s always at least some if your house is made out of wood) combined with traffic impact from the top uses those screwheads as fulcra to crack the tile, or failing that to wiggle and then seesaw it back and forth until it dislodges the grout and then the whole tile comes loose.

Spreading the mortar evenly is also a must. Any place where the mortar is thick or thin invites eventual problems. Still we might have gotten away with our screwheads if we’d gotten the polyblend additive for the mortar so it had some give rather than going right to crumble under stress. Thicker tile and smaller tile may also have compensated a bit. We used 12″x12″x.25″ tile, which was thin enough to break easily and big enough to offer a lot of offcenter leverage on each footstrike.

Knowing what I know now I’ll also be more attentive to the condition of the grout. When the tiles started to play it showed up in the crumbling grout first. It may have been possible at that point to scrape out the grout, inject some mortar under the tile edges, and regrout. Until it was too late that seemed like a lot of bother over a little cosmetic imperfection, but read on. [UPDATE: This technique did not work for me and I’ll be taking out and replacing a few more tiles over the summer. Seems to suggest it’s just worth biting the bullet and re-doing everything that’s even slightly loose all at once.]

OK, so eventually we had five or six tiles that were definitely coming up. So we took them out, walked around with attentive feet for a few weeks and ended up removing another dozen (out of maybe 120 or so total; like I said we did it almost right) that were showing signs of wiggle. At this point the real fun started.

Chipping up mortar by hand is an unpleasant task. I got a mortar chisel (big wide blade) which helped some, but some of the mortar wants to stay put no matter what. That’s what it’s for, after all. Plus kneeling on the floor pounding on a chisel with a hammer is not a recommended workout for thighs, hips and lower back. I did find, as is so often the case, that relaxing and letting the tool do the work was better than trying to muscle it. But for me at least that’s easier said than done. The bigger problem was that the adjacent pounding loosened up a couple more tiles. Eventually out of frustration I discovered that cutting cross-grooves in the mortar with a carbide-tipped scoring tool and then scraping it out with a grout scraper (I got the kind with the triangular carbide tip) was faster and less counterproductively violent. [Update: I’ve now got an oscillating tool with a chipping blade that looks very promising should this task arise again.]

So at this point we’ve got some open spaces on our floor ready to accept tile. Of course I went back and torqued down the offending screwheads. Some of the previous tiles were already broken, some more broke in the process of getting the mortar off them (which is just as fun as getting it off the floor), and of course the Home Depot no longer stocks those exact tiles. Given bad alternatives of approximate color-matching, tracking down remaindered tile, pasting broken tiles back in or digging up the whole floor and starting over, we decided to see if we could turn an embarrassing repair of a failed installation into a triumph.

We settled on smashing up the used tiles and using them for mosaic. The original floor is a checkerboard of reddish and tannish tiles, so we mixed the colors in the mosaics to locally fractalize the larger pattern. Doing the mosaic was a matter of sitting there with lots of tile shards of various shapes and sizes and piecing them together like a puzzle. That part was kind of fun. Once we had the mosaic laid out we took the pieces back out one by one, mortared them up (we used a premix acrylic mortar at this point) and stuck them down. By now my hips, back and thighs were getting downright blase’ about all the crabby work postures on the floor.

Grouting was no sweat in comparison, just more floor work. Over the last couple of weeks my feet, which are in full ptsd hypervigilance mode at this point, have found a couple more wiggly tile corners, so hoping I’d learned my lesson I promptly dug the grout out, pushed mortar under and grouted them back up.

Meatball tests the new floor

This is the main stretch

The main section from the other side

We like the subtle contrast of the grout and repainted the cabinets to match

Optimistically I think I now have a pretty good skill for the job — not just the brute instructions and techniques, but the logic and feel of them. Of course we have no plans for any other tiling in the foreseeable future. We’ve also gone that much farther toward turning our little suburban development starter house into something no one likely to buy such a thing will want to buy. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

November 26, 2009

Entropy in the cul-de-sac

by Carl Dyke

I noticed this morning [yesterday, now] that the bathroom floor had collected enough schmutz to pass my action threshold. Leaves blanket our lawn and laundry blankets a corner of our bedroom. There are dishes in the sink and a bagful of student papers to read. The fish need feeding, the dog needs walking and the State taxes on one of our cars are due. Recycling was last night, and again in two weeks.

At moments like this I feel the grip of entropy most keenly. The little orderly systems of my life require the regular application of energy to keep from sliding down into chaos. Each time it’s worth it – the modest pleasures of a clean floor, a tidy lawn and an empty bag add up to a satisfying little life. Nevertheless, as I contemplate each outlay of attention and energy on doing that’s just going to need doing again, and again and again, the happy Sisyphus remains a tantalizing ideal.

In the classic The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (1979), anthropologist Mary Douglas and economist Baron Isherwood argue that the periodicity of tasks is a primary marker of status. High-frequency, non-postponable entropic tasks describable as chores are the specialty of women, children, and servants. This is economically rational, they propose, in the way that any specialization is.

Thus, the division of labor between the sexes is set, the world over, by the best possible economic principles as follows: work frequencies tend to cluster into complementary role categories. These differentiate upward: the higher the status, the less periodicity constraints; the lower the status, the greater the periodicity constraints (86).

It follows that “[a]nyone with influence and status would be a fool to get encumbered with a high-frequency responsibility (86-7).”

No wonder I try to turn the entropic work in my life into rare and extraordinary events rather than daily habitual duties. The problem, I suppose, is that my sense of status does not match my class, as Weber might say. The classy thing to do would be to engage Central Americans to regulate my floor schmutz and tidy my lawn; start a grad program so there are intellectual strawberry-pickers around to grade my papers; and delegate the dishes and laundry to my wife. Too bad she’s an artist and has no more sense of vocation to keep the house up than I do. If only I had a real wife and not this impressive doer of awesome things! Maybe the two of us could marry someone else to do the chores for us? Or adopt a kid, an older one so someone else has already made the training investment. But, you know, kids these days….

October 16, 2009

Existential infinity

by Carl Dyke

I suspect that the ‘infinity standard’ is a dead, beaten and buried horse, but for my own amusement I have a ribbon to wrap it in. Consider this post collateral damage from a long commute alone with my thoughts during an NPR pledge drive.

To recap for convenience, in comments on the first post of the thread Kvond perceptively noted that “the Common Sense digestion of the guilt people feel for ‘not doing enough’ probably has very [little] to do with… an Infinity Standard. It probably has to do with letting specific people or models down that one feels they can’t live up to (not Infinite Models), and has to do with the prior, one might almost say, a priori establishment of subjectivity itself as a condition for guilt (at least in the West), a mechanism of storing up energies of self-infliction, much more locally organized and defined from any logic of infinity (real or imagined).”

I agreed that the subjective experience of an infinity standard was properly understood not as the product of a top-down logical argument from principles, but of a bottom-up accumulation of local obligations and their affective baggage. I think that’s how morals actually work; as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Bourdieu show in their various ways, systematic moral philosophies range from attempts to universalize local practices to reports on the fantasies of their authors. The feeling of infinity comes when the local claims on one’s moral action overload the buffer on one’s attention and energy, producing a paralyzing system crash. As I metaphorized it later in the thread, the resulting guilt effect is like “the shrapnel of moral artillery being fired by various competing communities tear[ing] into those of us with a sense of obligation to something larger than ourselves but no stable sense of what that might be.”

The key point is the locality of effective standards and obligations. Kvond reports feeling those local claims as dispiriting straight-jackets. Seen this way, the abstraction of infinity offers a liberating expansion of possibility. For any of us who grew up in tight-knit families, small towns or other relatively insular communities this argument is immediately evocative. Over-regulation can be a problem (corresponding to the “dualism/received knowledge” positions in Perry’s cognitive/ethical development schema).

But abstract infinity is only abstractly liberating, just as Marx argued in “On the Jewish Question” that abstract liberty is only abstractly liberating. In practice, Durkheim said, one must be regulated by a moral system that offers definite guidelines and goals, otherwise ‘it’s all good’ and ‘it’s all bad’ become equally available and equally unavoidable as floating judgments (corresponding to the “multiplicity/subjective knowledge” positions in Perry). Goffman’s warning against the tyranny of diffuse aims is on point here: when it’s not clear what the standards are, it can’t be clear what counts as accomplishment and an infinity of judgment is enabled.

We’re probably alright as long as we remain focused on personal liberation from a specific set of restrictive local morals, because they remain regulative even in their negation. Infinity looks like possibility from this vantage. The harrowing moment comes when we decenter our own locality and fully enter a world of multiple other local moral systems and agendas, each with equally coherent and valid claims on our attention and effort. Here the over-regulation is not coming from narrowness, but from overwhelming saturation. The syndrome is not claustrophobia, but agoraphobia.

As Neddy Merrill put it recently in quite a different context,

if we follow the ‘do the most good’ thought wherever it leads, we end up having really robust obligations that don’t leave room for our projects and commitments, e.g. friendships, hobbies, and so on. Or, in another version, the ‘do the most good’ thought leaves us alienated or estranged from our projects because of the way it prompts us to think of their value from the impartial point of view.

This is the question in relation to the trivially narrow yuppie quandary of whether to give money to Harvard University, and already it’s oversaturated. If we open the discussion up to all the possible wrongs that could be addressed by all the possible rights, any particular course of action recommended by one compelling standard becomes not just hopelessly inadequate by the plurality of standards but actively pernicious by other compelling standards. There are a lot of goalposts, they’re all a-wiggle, and the holder may not be on our team.

Be the target, Charlie Brown.

Be the target, Charlie Brown.

As wonderful as the internet and the world of blogging are for increasing our interaction density and enabling liberation from narrow, constraining provincialisms of practice, thought and ethic, that very same decentering dynamic potentially exposes us to an overwhelming multiplicity of compelling claims on our attention and energy, and potential judgments of our practice. The internet is just the most richly interactive of many modern media that not only delocalize us but then relocalize us in a much larger, more kaleidoscopic field of effective standards and obligations. Closing off or artificially limiting this paralyzing legion of ‘trolls’ and ‘grey vampires’, as a number of bloggers have done recently, is certainly one coherent coping strategy, and could suggest a relativist or perhaps merely multiplicity/subjectivist position in Perry’s old cognitive/ethical schema.

Perry suggests instead that we move to what he called “commitment:” “An affirmation, choice, or decision … made in the awareness of relativism (distinct from commitments never questioned). Agency is experienced as within the individual with a fully internalized and coherent value structure.” Yes, I end up saying, there are many other good things one might do, but this is the one I’m doing. Or as Weber said in his famous speech on politics as a vocation,

it is immensely moving when a mature man [sic]… is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other’.

The trick, I guess, is to be open to other people’s projects and even their criticisms of one’s own, without getting diverted into the swamps of Shoulds and What Ifs. It’s an infinitely open question where to draw that line.

October 6, 2009

Infinity and the ‘total institution’

by Carl Dyke

The reference was tickling the edge of my brain so I tracked it down. OK, cool – here’s what I meant:

Each official goal lets loose a doctrine, with its own inquisitors and its own martyrs, and within institutions there seems to be no natural check on the license of easy interpretation that results. Every institution must not only make some effort to realize its official aims but must also be protected, somehow, from the tyranny of a diffuse pursuit of them, lest the exercise of authority be turned into a witch hunt. — Erving Goffman, Asylums (1961)

The temptation is to look at this and say, Yeesh! Those dang institutions. Goffman’s more subtle point is always that these are things we do to ourselves.

September 28, 2009

You and me, and baby makes infinity

by Carl Dyke

(Brace for lengthy preamble:) I’m teaching a section of the freshman orientation seminar again as an overload. The class is the usual product of episodic collective decision-making, a hodgepodge of boilerplate pedagogical imperatives trailing admirable goals and good intentions behind them like toilet paper stuck to shoes. There’s not a lot of clarity about what the class is for or how to accomplish it, or rather there are various clarities which produce a muddy tinge when mixed together. This means I can mostly do what I want with it, so I’m happy.

There’s a book and a textbook, neither of which I picked but both of which I like fine. The book is Paul Cuadros’ A Home on the Field, about a plucky team of Latino kids, many undocumented, who momentarily overcome their destiny as cheap labor for consumer America and win the North Carolina state high-school soccer championship. Its narrative is engaging enough and its points about aspiration, fairness and Othering are obvious enough to engage freshmen right at the margin of the academic habitus.

The textbook is Ethics and College Student Life, which uses case studies to encourage ethical reflection across a range of principles (categorical imperative, utilitarianism, community, relationship, character growth). Among the things I like about this book is that the cases are mostly not easy stereotypes of right and wrong, and therefore to make any headway with them it’s necessary to unpack the conventions, dispositions and values that cluster with formal ethics to create situated ethical reasonings.

Well, for some reason I don’t remember ‘helicopter parenting’ was in the air at the beginning of the term, so I started with that as an informal talking-point to introduce the students to the procedures of coordinating abstract thinking with concrete examples. Most of the students have been helicoptered to varying degrees, adding further value to making that ‘normal’ relationship a matter of reflective investigation for them. I bracketed the good/bad kind of moral judgment to take the sting out of the discussion and offered a more ethnographic view of ethics as practices aspiring to universality. The question was then, what kind of people and relationships do helicopter practices create, and what kind of world do they aspire to?

The resulting discussion was a rough first day on the trail, so I won’t linger on it except to say that the students were engaged and began to see the fun of using their noggins in new ways. Where I’m going with this post is to note that the ethic of helicopter parenting is another of those places where the infinity standard pops up. There is always more you can do for your child, infinity.

Which is new for ‘people like me’ since I was a lad, when we (the suburban petite-bourgeoisie) were still making the transition from the low investment, children-as-asset paradigm to the high investment, children-as-status-display paradigm that is now virtually complete.

Careful not to oversauce.

Careful not to oversauce.

Along these lines, as captain of a USTA tennis team I’m befuddled to find that it’s sometimes hard to line guys up to play on evenings and weekends (which is pretty much when there is for working adults to play) because they are attending the organized sporting events of their offspring. Huh? As I understand it, there is some pride for the parent who never misses a spectation opportunity, and some shame in being the parent who does. The standard of parental attention seems to be infinity. Now by way of contrast, I remember reading a Rolling Stone interview with Tip O’Neill about how proud he was of his generation of Democratic legislators for the workplace legislation that made sure fathers wouldn’t routinely be working 80-90 hour weeks and thus never see their kids. And even later, when I was growing up, walking ten miles to school through the perennial snow uphill both ways, and I was on the high school tennis team (we played in the snow uphill both ways), I’m pretty dang sure my parents never came to a single match. This might have damaged my delicate psyche if anyone else’s parents had come out, but to my recollection they did not. (No doubt years of expensive therapy could implant those memories to get me caught up with the state of the art.)

There was a late bus to take me home from team practices and matches. It was sometimes an hour or so between the end of something (I was also in some school theater and so on) and when the late bus went, so I waited. The late bus wound around all creation to take various kids to various homes; I was pretty far out in farm country so that was another hour, give or take. If I missed the late bus for some reason I knew I could call and Mom or Dad would come get me, when they got around to it after they finished what they were doing. This also involved waiting. Necessity seeks its virtue, and mine is patience. I’m also used to thinking of other people’s agendas as having some value independent of my immediate convenience.

The main point of these organized sporting activities of my youth, as far as I can tell, was to add a few hours onto the time when parents did not have to pay attention to their children.

To practice out of season I would ride my bike about 5 miles to the courts, play a few hours, then ride home. My idea of privilege was to not have chores at home that I was shirking; it did not occur to me that my parents should be available to drop everything and give me rides to the courts, nor did they make any visible point of fretting over the very real chances that I would get sideswiped into the ditches on our narrow country roads or that I would not have a good time. Necessity’s virtues were that I was in fine physical condition without a lot of fuss, independent, and pretty good at entertaining myself. I got what seemed to me like plenty of attention and it never occurred to me to doubt that I was loved and valued.

Every discipline calls forth its characteristic rebellion.

Every discipline calls forth its characteristic rebellion.

Every parenting system involves trade-offs. Independence is nice for low-density social settings but can involve some inwardness, a kind of cultural autism, that makes higher-density sociability awkward and energy-intensive. In contrast the helicoptered kids tend to be trusting, open and easily sociable. And because they’ve never had to make do and are used to their needs being met on demand, they drive a consumer economy much better than the frugal self-reliance I grew up with. From that latter perspective, it’s a good thing that their personal boundaries are rudimentary and their expectations unlimited. It will be interesting to see how they translate being the recipients of their parents’ infinity standards into their own parenting practices.

September 21, 2009

The infinity standard

by Carl Dyke

The infinity standard will be familiar to anyone who is interested in doing good in their work. It goes something like this. 1.) In the work of doing good, effort causes good. 2.) All possible good should be done, and 3.) all foregone effort is foregone good. 4.) In principle, there is no condition one can be in where slightly more effort is not possible. 5.) With infinite effort, infinite good can be done. 6.) Therefore, infinity is the standard. Anything short is deplorable dereliction.

Usually when outsiders have helpful thoughts for folks in the good-doing activities, they have something like this model in mind, stopping at 4 and not thinking it through to the apparent conclusion at 6. So the infinity standard may not be immediately visible in these interactions. Each suggestion is just one more little thing, one slight retool, what’s the big deal? Responsible do-gooders have generally thought or at least felt it through to 6, but like the Helpy Helpertons miss the real conclusion at 7, this is an absurdity, until it’s too late. Making do-gooders feel guilty that they’re not doing enough or that they’re doing it wrong is like shooting ducks in a bucket. In the short run it can even get more effort out of them.

Get to work!

Get to work!

Rachel and I talk a lot about things I could do to improve my teaching. She’s on board with course blogs, for example, as I probably will be before too long. It can be exciting to add new tricks to the bag, as I regularly do, as long as infinity isn’t the standard. Rachel herself is a cautionary tale. For a year she worked with at-risk high school students in rural Maine who had been kicked out of every available public school and finally alighted in her chronically underfunded specialized private school. Rachel poured her heart into it and did buckets of good by devoting most of her waking moments to figuring out a whole series of creative ways to engage and enlighten these kids. She found their interests, bonded with them, reimagined the curriculum to leverage their strengths against their weaknesses, and really got through to quite a few of them. One even graduated high school and got a job at Walmart. The rest continued to get pregnant and arrested, but they had a much better general view of their own possibilities as thinking persons.

As a result of this experience Rachel has no particular interest in teaching ever again. Which is really a shame, because she was great at it. But she burnt out, one of two classic outcomes of the infinity standard. The other is bitter disillusionment. We all know some of each.

Nothing makes me see red like the infinity standard. There’s much about how good is done that can and should be changed, sooner preferably, and there’s always more good to be done. But gifted teachers and other do-gooders do not grow on trees, so to eject or degrade them with the infinity standard is shortsighted and self-defeating. This just hits the reset button, as often as not with someone less gifted and responsible. I’m in favor of a more realistic standard and a more sustainable rate of good-delivery. Sometimes, Helpy, it’s not that we’re dragging our feet but that we’re pacing ourselves.

September 7, 2009

Bells and whistles

by Carl Dyke

In the comments on the last post Owen suggests, and Kevin seconds, using student blogs leading into writing assignments to intercept plagiarism, while presumably adding the value of recursive drafting. I think this is a great idea, but as I said there I’m not sure that in my situation and for my purposes it isn’t a solution looking for a problem. But I could be wrong. I’m going to say some stuff I think about various pedagogical techniques and technologies, ‘bells and whistles’ as I sometimes call them when I’m feeling generous, ‘magic bullets’ when I’m not, but ultimately my aim is to participate in a discussion about which strategies and media might be good for what.

I don’t think Powerpoint or Blackboard or blogs or Ning sites are automatically good or bad things; they are tools that may or may not fit the job at hand. In general I agree with Diana Laurillard in her excellent Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology (1993) that “[e]very medium has its strengths, so they can help, but each needs to be complemented by a teacher-student dialogue, and that is ultimately labour-intensive” (178). I’ll admit to being a little on the extreme in thinking, as this sentence implies (and as Laurillard shows throughout), that the one essential feature of good, effective teaching is dialogue. And insofar as the bells and whistles are used to save or displace the intensive labor of dialogue, I think they are actively pernicious.


Because I think this, my classes are set up with the maximum of dialogue and the minimum of inculcation. I lecture very little and mostly just to show the students how to figure things out for themselves, after which they set to it. I do a lot of modeling, guiding and prompting; I elicit, mediate and referee. The basic process is a recursive spiral, much like meditative or martial arts training, in which we start with the basic skills of critical reading, analysis and synthesis and work through them over and over with new material and projects at increasing levels of facility. I consciously save my energy for the intensive reading and reacting that this process requires from me, and beyond the assigned course materials I expect the baby birds to go find their own worms, so I do very little or no ‘supplementing’. Here’s Laurillard again, from an interview:

And over the last century there were ideas from Piaget and Vygotsky and Bruner and Pask, and so on, and all the way through, no matter who your guru is, you can find somebody who’s saying something similar to that, that what it takes to learn is more than just being told. You’ve got to engage with it, you’ve got to have feedback, you’ve got to be trying to make it your own, you’ve got to be working with it, practising it, applying it in real life, getting feedback on what you do, arguing about it with others, negotiating ideas in all of those things; and I don’t think that changes, and no matter how good the technology is, what it takes to learn a difficult idea is much the same kind of thing, of grappling with it, reflecting on it, arguing about it, trying to apply it, trying again to do it better. That’s what learning means. So what we use the technology for is to find ways of making that better and easier. But it doesn’t change the cognitive task of what you have to do, not that much.

I have the privilege of not needing to use bells and whistles because my classes are small enough (the largest are capped at 25) to enable substantive dialogic process in facetime. There’s no need to lecture, old-school or with the Powerpoint magic bullet, because I’m not stuck with mooing cattle for students packed into the intellectual slaughterhouse of a large hall with seats bolted in rows facing the wisdom gun up front. And although I’ve found Michael Wesch’s work interesting and impressive, unlike him I’m not driven to the internet to compensate for the sociological monstrosity of overloaded classes in barbaric spaces. I can and do get my students in a circle, looking at each other.

There are some pretty spiffy ways the bells and whistles can save labor in the drudgeries of teaching and learning, however; this is where I find them the most promising. If I had a net-enabled projector in my classrooms (you may see here that my campus is so tech-disabled that part of what I’m doing is making virtue of necessity) I’d certainly use it to enlarge images for discussion, maps for orientation, and web resources for assessment. I assign an ethnographic field journal in most of my classes as a reflective record of the teaching/learning experience, and I’m pretty close to suggesting a blog as a way to do that (in fact, one student who was already a blogger did it that way recently on her own initiative). I really liked Wesch’s experiment with having students post executive summaries of divided reading assignments as a way to enable more well-informed and wide-ranging class discussions; I’ve done that sort of thing with handouts and/or oral reports, but depending on how much you want the process or the outcome of research to be the focus his way may gain in efficiency and elegance.

And of course software and web technologies can be fantastic tools for enabling access to practices, materials and conversations for students who would otherwise be excluded; to take notes and organize thoughts; or even just to find answers to questions that come up in class on the fly.

I guess this has turned out to look a bit like a luddite manifesto, but my mind really is not made up on this stuff. In what ways can the bells and whistles be more than bells and whistles? Where do they go from workarounds to enhancements? What’s really new about the new systems, as opposed to flashy new ways to do the same old crap? Is teaching to use these technologies effectively an end in itself, even part of schools’ core responsibility? If we can do these cool things, how stupid would it be not to? Thoughts?