Posts tagged ‘teaching and learning’

March 24, 2013

Wild yeast sourdough starter

by CarlD

As a logical next step in my fiddlings with bread-making, I just baked my first sourdough loaf with home-made wild yeast starter the other day. To eliminate all suspense, it came out great – by which I mean, it reminded me of all the things I like about sourdough bread without introducing any new negative associations. I especially like it because I did it ‘all wrong’, which is what this post will now document.

“Softly now, softly now – try it, you won’t die.” Silkworm, “A Cockfight of Feelings

So, how I went about this is I got on the ol’ internet and googled ‘sourdough starter’. A little reading got me pretty quickly to the further qualification, ‘wild yeast’ – thus distinguishing the truly artisanal starter from the kinds someone else made that you can buy for a whole lot of money from specialty baking stores, if you’re a clueless snob, or Amazon, if you’re even more clueless but at least not a snob. So once I had the correct verbiage for cheap-ass diy starter, I did some more searching and read through some instructions. (I omit the links because I just told you how to diy, get it?)

Well, opinions about exactly what’s happening with sourdough starter seem to vary a bit, starting with where the wild yeasts are actually coming from. Is it the air around us? Is it the flour? Is it the whole grains you must treat with excruciatingly careful reverence to yield their Gaiant bounty of biomagic? With just a slight knowledge of these matters, I decided it was probably all of the above, plus everywhere else, since that’s where yeasts are. So I ignored the instructions that said I had to be careful not to cover the starter vessel with plastic wrap or anything else impermeable. I also ignored the instructions that said I had to hermetically seal the starter vessel, sterilize every instrument that ever came in contact with the starter, wear a hazmat suit, never use stainless steel, always use stainless steel, never use silicon, always use silicon, and so on.

Go Green!

Go Green!

In fact I pretty much ignored every single instruction designed to seal off the wild yeast starter from the environment it had somehow come from. I also ignored all the instructions designed to make my starter a delicate, difficult thing that required constant, meticulous care. I know people whose lives are given a rich sense of meaning by arranging to provide constant, meticulous care to other creatures, but that’s not me and if it was, I’d pick creatures other than yeasts and lactobacilli.

Speaking of lactobacilli, I paid a lot of attention to discussions of the multi-biotic nature of sourdough starter. It’s not the yeasts that are making the sour, it’s the bacteria. But the bacteria don’t make the bread rise, and they also have a tendency to make the ‘spoilt’ version of sour when they get lonely and pig out. So a functional sourdough starter is actually a community of beasties each creating some of the conditions for each others’ happiness, encouraging each others’ strengths and discouraging each others’ excesses, and incidentally each handling part of a fairly complex little biological process that assembles into a tangy leavening. Which of course wasn’t at all what they ‘intended’, but makes an excellent complement to garlicky cream cheese. So anyway, ‘building’ a starter is a process of getting that community together to work out a harmonious relationship under the conditions they enjoy.

“Control is when others’ locked-in interactions generate a flow of collective behavior that just happens to serve one’s interests.” Padgett and Ansell, “Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434;” see also Padgett and Powell, The Emergence of Organizations and Markets (2012).

Those conditions are: flour and water. We’re talking about fermentation here, after all, which in real life is hard to keep from happening if you’ve got moist sugars around. Which brings up the mold problem, of which there’s plenty in my house, the dominant strain for unmysterious reasons being ‘bleu cheese’. But fortunately, between the acid the bacteria start producing right away, the alcohol the yeasts start producing soon enough, and the natural division of labor among the artistes of organic decomposition, mold is not actually much of a threat if you’re not trying hard to kill the yeast and bacteria somehow.

Mmmmmmm, stinky.

OK, so I read a whole lot about ambient temperature, water temperature, using bottled water, using distilled water and adding minerals back in, using orange juice, using pineapple juice, using white flour, using rye flour, not using white flour, not using rye flour. With just a slight knowledge of these matters, I reflected on the global success under the most extreme conditions of yeasts and lactobacilli, and decided not to sweat any of these factors too much (although, in principle, I wouldn’t have been completely surprised if a chlorine spike in my suburban tap water had set the critters back a bit). I did decide to take some of the chance out of the lactobacilli, mostly because I had an old tub of plain yogurt handy. And no, it was not any particular brand or type of plain yogurt, but it was past its expiration date as it happens.

I also looked at a lot of instructions about getting a kitchen scale, getting one that measures in grams because they’re more precise, calibrating hydration ratios, using a tall, straight-sided vessel with a dedicated lid, sterilizing this vessel and your hands before handling it, scraping down the sides so that, gosh, I don’t know. So anyway, here was my beginning recipe for my wild yeast sourdough starter:

Some flour
Some water
Some plain yogurt.

Roughly the same amount of each, by eyeball, probably a bit less yogurt because I thought of that as a ‘supplement’.

“My friends always say, the right amount’s fine. Lazy people make rules.” Silkworm, “A Cockfight of Feelings”

All of this went in a plastic bowl (with sloped sides because it has sloped sides) I also eat cereal, pasta, and curry from sometimes; with some plastic wrap loosely draped on top. This then went on a corner of the kitchen table I wasn’t using for anything else right then. I am woefully ignorant of the exact temperature of this spot, but I can guarantee it was neither hot enough to bake nor cold enough to freeze my arse. I started with bread flour, I think, but I ran out of that before the next feeding so I switched to rye for awhile because I had a bag of that open and it kept getting mentioned in the instructions. Then for awhile what I had open and easy to get at was some white whole wheat flour, so I used that.

And speaking of feeding, I read all kinds of instructions about pouring out exactly [some ratio I forget] of the starter before each feeding, adding back [another exact ratio I forget] of flour and water, doing this once a day at first and then every 12 hours, carefully swabbing down the sides of the container, adding strips of tape to allow precise measurement of the starter’s expansions and contractions, holding the container between your knees and counting to 6,327 by perfect squares, and checking carefully for ‘hooch’, which is such a precise technical term that at least half of the folks using it have no idea it’s why there’s NASCAR.

Medicinal purposes only, of course.

What I did instead was pour some out and add some back, roughly the amount it had expanded in the interim; when I remembered it, which was anything from a couple times a day to every couple of days. I tried to keep it pretty soupy because I read the beasties like to be wet, and I’ve found this to be true. I did this for something between a week and two weeks – I did not keep track. About day 2 or 3 it got that sourdough smell, then it settled into a kind of sweet peachiness I had not expected. I got back onto the internet and found a long forum thread on the many, many different permutations of ‘sweet peachy’ smell ranging all the way to ‘spiced apple’ that can be expected from a properly harmonizing community of yeasts and bacteria. Reassuring. So when I got sick of waiting any longer, although I think I was supposed to, instead of pouring out the extra I poured it into a bowlful of the flour I happened to have handy and open right then. Whole wheat, rye, and kamut as I recall – kamut btw is fun stuff, an heirloom grain that has a lovely buttery flavor and adds amazing elasticity to a dough.

Here was the ‘recipe’: salt in the right amount for the flour, bit of sugar to be friendly, touch of olive oil and enough warm (tap) water to make a wet dough just drier than a batter. Because the beasties like to be wet. Once they’d fermented that up for most of a day, I stretched, folded, smeared, punched and kneaded in enough more flour that it would stay in a loaf shape (not doing this is how you get ciabatta); let it think about that for maybe an hour longer; threw it in a hot oven on the pizza stone; dumped some water in the bottom of the oven to get some steam to keep the crust from setting too quickly (thank you internet); and some time later there was delicious whole wheat / rye / kamut multigrain sourdough bread.


Through all this I was aware that by failing to control for every possible variable the project could go horribly awry rather than pleasantly a rye. I reflected on the $.50 of flour and aggregate 10 minutes of work that would be irretrievably lost, and decided to roll those dice.

Does this mean none of the variables all that internet fussing is trying tightly to control don’t matter? On the contrary, I’m sure they do. But my little experiment suggests most of them other than flour, water, a container, and temperatures somewhere between freezing and baking are conditions of the ‘inus’ variety:

“The inus condition is an insufficient but non–redundant part of an unnecessary but sufficient condition” [quoting Cartwright, Nature’s Capacities and their Measurement, 1989, citing Mackie, The Cement of the Universe, 1980]. It’s best to read that backwards: you identify causal conditions sufficient to produce a given effect, but know that there are other conditions that could have produced the same effect. Within the sufficient conditions you’ve identified is a condition that couldn’t produce the effect by itself, is separate from all the other conditions that along with it could produce the effect, but must be among them for the effect to be produced through the causal pathway that’s been picked out. The inus scenario (any scenario containing an inus condition) shows up frequently in attempted causal analyses, and has to be accounted for somehow in any comprehensive causal theory (Chuck Dyke aka Dyke the Elder, “Cartwright, Capacities, and Causes: Approaching Complexity in Evolving Economies,” draft-in-progress).

There are lots of ways to skin a cat. Which means there’s an interesting sociology of popular science lurking in the internet’s various treatments of wild yeast sourdough starter. There are many strategies on offer, each presenting a series of essential steps to success. And each of the strategies will in fact result in a successful culture, while adding procedures that may be important only to offset the sabotage added by other procedures, or to create an outcome distinguished only by the specific way it was achieved; or not important at all except for attention focus or ritual (which, by the way, are not trivial considerations). Apparently when a thing happens to work one way, we can be inclined to leap to the conclusion that this is the one best way to make it happen; ignoring all evidence to the contrary, for example all the other ways described in their own loving detail by other practitioners just as convinced of the robust essence of their accidental triumphs.

Incidentally, this is also how I think about education in general, and general education in particular.

December 7, 2012


by johnmccreery

The following remarks were addressed to anthropologists on the Open Anthropology Cooperative. They may be of some value to students in other fields.

Erin asks, “What if there were something like life-long learning in anthropology?”

Sitting on top of our kitchen counter is a book, Haruo Shirane (1998) Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô. Shirane was a friend of my wife in graduate school at Yale. I pick the book up, start browsing through the introduction and come across the following passage,

The seventeenth century witnessed not only a dramatic rise in the standard of living for almost all levels of society but a striking change in the nature of cultural production and consumption. In the medieval period, provincial military lords (daimyô) were able to learn about the Heian classics from traveling renga (classical linked verse) masters such as Sôgi (1421-1502), but the acquisition of classical texts was limited to a relatively small circle of poet-priests, powerful warriors, and aristocrats, who were deeply rooted in the traditional culture of Kyoto. A monopoly—epitomized by the Kokin denju, the secret teachings of the Kokinshû—had been established over the study of classical texts, the study of which was often passed on through carefully controlled lineages, in one-to-one transmissions to the elected few. In the seventeenth century, by contrast, anyone who could afford to pay for lessons could receive instructions from “town teachers” (machi shisô) in any one of many arts or fields of learning. The transmission of learning was not dependent, as it had been in the medieval period, on the authority of poetry families or the patronage of large institutions such as Buddhist temples or powerful military lords.

I am reminded that, in Japan today, there exists alongside the universities a system of “culture centers.” Operated mostly by newspapers and department stores, they play a role analogous to that of the “town teachers” mentioned by Shirane, offering lifelong learning classes to housewives and retirees on a vast range of subjects from homely cooking skills to classical Japanese literature and urban planning.

This reflection reminds me of other worlds of private education in the West, piano and other music teachers and operators of craft shops who offer classes in knitting, crocheting or macrame, operating in effect as one-teacher culture centers with a limited range of offerings. My mind spins on, where was it that I saw a reference to philosophy cafes? A Google search turns up 5,700,000 hits. The first, from Wikipedia, says,

Café philosophique (“cafe-philo”) is a grassroots forum for philosophical discussion, founded by philosopher Marc Sautet (1947–1998) in Paris, France, on December 13, 1992.[1]
There were about 100 “cafés-philos” operating throughout France and some 150 cafés-philos internationally at the time of Sautet’s death in 1998.[2][3]

The subjects discussed at the cafes had a range that varied from the Santa Claus myth to truth to beauty to sex to death. They posed such questions as What is a fact? and Is hope a violent thing? Sautet made the discussions seem fun and exciting. The concept was to bring people together in a public friendly forum where they could discuss ideas. A cafe tended to have this type of atmosphere where people were relaxed drinking coffee and carrying on conversations. This concept ultimately developed into Café Philosophique that he founded.[4]

Thousands of participants in philosophy cafes worldwide have adopted Sautet’s idea as a way to enhance their thinking. Ideas are thrown out with concern for accuracy and philosophical rigor. The concepts discussed were in the spirit of tolerance and openness. The idea of Sautet’s philosophy cafes have spread around the world. The concept that started in France and subsequently entered England, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, and eventually throughout Europe is now in the United States, Canada, South America, Greece, Australia and even Japan.[2] Due to this success, the French president Jacques Chirac sent a founding member on a good will mission to Latin America to introduce the concept there.[3]
A common element in these, I will call them “para-academic,” institutions is their social dimension. On any given subject, those who come to learn could find more brilliant lectures and better illustrated demonstrations on-line via Coursera, iTunes U, etc. What they still can’t find is social opportunities, real-world places to meet people who share similar interests, in settings where a shared hobby can lead to drinks, dinner, or (we gracefully draw the curtain) other forms of social activity.

Is it possible to imagine at least a few entrepreneurial anthropologists living comfortably, even prospering, by pursuing this line? Just had dinner last night with an American friend living in Japan who has spun teaching English to dentists into organizing tours to international medical conferences and has just founded a company to take advantage of what she has learned and the contacts she has made to organize other, now I will call them “learning-socializing” events, related to politics and spirituality, topics in which she has strong personal interests. Not an anthropologist (originally and still, in another of her many roles, a professional jazz pianist), but perhaps a model that anthropologists stuck with no jobs or crap jobs in today’s academic world might want to consider.

June 28, 2010

Are teachers like coaches?

by CarlD

Well, for one thing in high school lots of teachers are coaches. But I’m going to focus on coaches of big famous sports teams. There are some illuminating similarities, and the differences have a laboratory feel to them for thinking about how both teaching and coaching work and don’t work. I’ve been intrigued by John Doyle’s series of posts at Ktismatics questioning whether teachers actually cause students to learn, based on an extensive survey of studies that pretty consistently show they don’t. We could ask the same questions of coaches and winning.

To set the scene, John finds the data pointing strongly toward genetic (or at least early-childhood) hardwired dispositions to educational performance. In contrast, study after study has failed to find much impact on student outcomes from different teaching or learning styles, experience levels, specialized training, or any other teacher variable. Generously, John’s conclusion in the most recent post, “The Students Make the Teacher,” is that “kids would spool out their genetic intellectual potentials within the constraints imposed by their culture regardless of who their teachers are, but that’s not to say that they need no teaching. Rather, as long as they’re not abusive or neglectful, teachers are probably pretty much interchangeable over the long run. So my bet is that regardless of what sorts of educational outcomes are measured, differences between teachers will prove minimal.” In short, students are going to learn what they’re going to learn almost no matter what.

Of course like most teachers I’d like to take credit for all those Aha! moments that happen in and around my classroom, and I’d like to blame the kids who don’t get it for being recalcitrant. But I’ve long suspected that neither position is well-warranted, not to mention that they’re transparently ideological, so I’m open to John’s suggestion to “be a good enough teacher, rather than one who’s too caught up in performance anxiety and delusions of massive impact on kids’ lives. Enjoy the job, recognizing that ultimately it’s the kids’ job to develop and to learn. Then relax, have some fun, honor the kids’ autonomy, let your own personal style shine forward, and the teacher and the kids might actually enjoy the ride together.”

So what about coaching? John says students bring scholastic performance with them and teaching has little to do with it. A parallel argument would be that athletes bring competitive performance with them and coaching has little to do with it. If this were true, a coach with good players would look brilliant, while the same coach with bad players would look like a dog. And in fact this seems to be the case. In the NBA, for example, Doc Rivers had moderate success with a moderately-talented lineup in Orlando before being fired for stagnant performance. Subsequently the Magic drafted Dwight Howard, signed Rashard Lewis and traded for Vince Carter, becoming one of the dominant teams in the East under journeyman coach Stan Van Gundy. Meanwhile, Rivers won an NBA championship coaching the Boston Celtics, who added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to an already-strong roster of role players led by star Paul Pierce.

The acknowledged superstar of NBA coaching is Phil Jackson, who won multiple championships with the Chicago Bulls following the maturation of Michael Jordan and acquisition of Scottie Pippen. He then went to the Lakers where he won with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, did not win following the departure of O’Neal, then won again with the arrival of Pau Gasol. Clearly his success is player-dependent, but it should be said that his chief merit is that he puts his players in position to succeed; he is a shrewd evaluator of talent and disposition, as witness his ability to get full value out of brilliant but mercurial prima donnas Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest, not to mention Jordan, Pippen, Bryant and O’Neal themselves. I think this is characteristic of both good coaches and good teachers, and it’s not a small thing; teams of superstars without this sort of enabling coordination regularly implode, as witness France in this year’s soccer World Cup.

In NFL football, Bill Belichick is an excellent example of the hypothesis. He was a total dog with the talent-poor Cleveland Browns, then became a genius with the talent-rich Patriots. His excellence as a game-planner did not change, but it was not enough without Tom Brady and Randy Moss in their primes running the plays. Again, Belichick is a shrewd talent evaluator who identifies his players’ strengths and puts them in position to succeed, but without those strengths, as more recently with the injury and decline of Brady, Moss, Wes Welker and other core players, he is helpless to be the difference that makes the difference. Similarly, Paul Holmgren understood the connection of personnel to coaching well enough to insist on controlling both in Seattle. Unfortunately he turned out to be a mediocre judge of talent (see: Branch, Burleson) and was not able to repeat the Super Bowl success he enjoyed in Green Bay with a team assembled by general manager Paul Wolf.

In college sports it is widely known that the best coaches are first and foremost the best recruiters. All else being equal, which it usually is, the best players win. Coaches who can both obtain those players and put them in positions to succeed are of course at a premium, and coordinated teams of good players regularly beat packs of feral superstars, but even here the coach’s merit is in identifying and channeling the existing talents and dispositions of her players. And given the rapid turnover of rosters in college sports, coaches who were geniuses with great players a few years ago are regularly has-beens looking for work when the talent level drops off.

It is also generally understood that over time players will begin to tune out even the most successful coaches. A great recent example of this is the NHL’s Peter Laviolette, a coach who specializes in increasing the intensity of underperforming or undertalented teams. After beginning his career by improving the talent-poor New York Islanders marginally he wore out his welcome and moved to the Carolina Hurricanes. There he lit a fire and got maximum effort out of a moderately-talented team, pushing them to a Stanley Cup. Within a couple of years his approach had burnt the players out, he went from genius to dog, and after a dreadful half-season he was fired. Whereupon he was hired this year by the talented but drifting Flyers and promptly became a genius again, driving them to a Finals appearance. If history holds true (many other coaches fit his description, for example Mike Keenan) he has maybe one more year before the players tune him out or rebel against the constant pressure. The teaching equivalent of Laviolette is Jaime Escalante, the “Stand and Deliver” guy. He was undeniably successful in activating the latent talents of his students, but the pressurized environment he created proved unsustainable.

In this year’s World Cup the Italian coach, Marcello Lippi, was clearly a dog as his talented team, the defending champions, failed to win even one game against lesser opposition and were eliminated in the first round. Yet Lippi had been the coach for the World Cup win four years earlier, just as clearly a genius with an unparalleled record of success. “He was named the world’s best football manager by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) both in 1996 and 1998, and world’s best National coach in 2006. He is the only coach in the world to have ever won the most prestigious competitions both for clubs and for National teams. In 2007 the Times put his name on the list of top 50 managers of all time.” He will shortly be replaced as coach and it’s likely the team will perform better, but will that be because the old guy was bad and the new guy is good?

If the coaching/teaching analogy holds, all of this ought to be quite humbling for all of us would-be Svengalis. Our upside is limited by that of our Trilbys, and our downside is as far down as they care to take us. When the chemistry comes together we can sometimes be catalytic, but this can’t be counted on as the normal situation and often enough a good chemistry requires our removal. Under these circumstances I can certainly understand why we’re paid so little, as we often complain, despite performing what is magically thought of as socially necessary labor. Fortunately the learning that really needs to happen will happen anyway, and maybe along the way we can “relax, have some fun, honor the kids’ autonomy, let [our] own personal style shine forward, and … enjoy the ride together.”

May 7, 2010

An obsessive consistency

by CarlD

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 31, 2010

Just do it?

by CarlD

Back in the day, guys used to work. Nowadays, guys got feelings. — An old hand’s lament.

Yesterday I locked myself out of my office. It was a carpool day and I forgot to grab my keys.

When I got to school it was time for my first section of freshman introductory World History. So I went right to class and got them settled and oriented toward the day’s task, which was peer-review of thesis paragraphs for their papers on agency. (In this section most of the papers will be on the decision to drop the atomic bomb.) Then I told them what was up with my keys, they laughed at me, and I left the classroom to go get my door open.

When I got back after about 15 minutes (took a pitstop while I was at it) they were reading and commenting on their second or third paragraphs each. I let them finish a couple more swaps, then had a group discussion about what patterns they saw in the paragraphs they had read. This yielded some nice insights about constructing a point in relation to evidence and the concept of agency in relation to structure. Then I opened a parenthesis about their teaching/learning journals for the class, and asked them a process question. Colleagues regularly remark on how my students don’t seem to require a lot of supervision, I informed them. Why do students just work in some classes but play limpy or make an obstructive fuss in others?

The discussion was interesting and seemed self-reflectively valuable, so I asked the other two sections the same thing. Then, with a meeting coming up to select the campus professor of the year, I used my seminar today as a focus group to brainstorm qualities that make a good teacher. Across the four groups the students’ perspectives lined up strikingly consistently. A common wisdom among some teachers is that students want to be spoon-fed, so their opinion of ‘good’ teaching is really just easy grades. I didn’t find this to be the case at all. Given bad alternatives students prefer an easy teacher to an arbitrarily or inaccessibly hard one. But they don’t respect or appreciate easy teaching.

My students all enjoy most the classes in which they learn the most. Across the board they report learning the most from professors who treat them with respect, show them the value of the work they’re doing, and include them in a shared process of teaching and learning. They appreciate when their teachers care about them and make an effort to shorten social distance rather than pontificating from on high. They love when professors know their stuff, and hate having their noses rubbed in the Herr Professor Doktor’s great expertise. They like to be challenged, not demeaned. In today’s group, where students brought up favorite professors by name, these factors were notably effective regardless of gender, race and ethnicity.

Incidentally, not a single student mentioned instructional technology as a dimension of good teaching and learning.

Previous posts on various aspects of this are behind the links.