If a tree falls in an empty conference room, does anybody hear?

Last weekend I went to Orlando, Florida for an academic conference. Two colleagues and I were on the program to present a panel (that is, three integrated short talks) on the teaching and learning opportunities in original research projects for undergraduate mechanical engineers. We had been working on our project since last January: drafting the proposal and later the paper, revising them, drafting the slides, rehearsing, revising the slides, and going over them again. I estimate that about 250 woman-hours went into our talks.

Two people came to our panel. That’s right, two. Oh, and one came 15 minutes late.

This is the thing about academic conferences that everybody knows about but no one does anything about: there are too many panels on the program for the number of attendees, which disperses the audience among too many rooms. Yes, some panels I attended had 30 people in the audience, the size maybe of a class of students. Usually, you hope for at least 8 to 10. But two? Well, that’s just disillusioning, as one of my colleagues said. Our work had almost no effect.

I wonder, selfishly, what else could I have written with the same 100 hours I contributed to the panel? One could say I learned a lot from the research I did (my talk was based on a qualitative study I conducted among students on their experience of a set of assignments), and my colleagues and I consolidated our understanding of our own work through this experience, but, really, to have an audience is better.

In the talks I went to, the best was by keynote speaker Manuel Lima, who presented from his book Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). He argues that, as the dominant paradigm for visualizing knowledge has gone from the tree to the network, ideas of beauty must change from an emphasis on symmetry and order to complexity and disorder. Lima’s presentation ranged over history, art, science, Gestalt psychology, and our digital world. He used beautiful, disparate images from handmade manuscripts and other artifacts in surprising ways. Illustrations of trees, like this one from 1202 by Joachim of Fiore (in Lima’s book), gave way to abstract art and in particular a network-like painting, Autumn Rhythm, done in 1950 by Jackson Pollock.

The Tree of the Two Advents (1202)

I sat at a table with Manuel Lima at lunch and heard more about his ideas; I bought his book and got his signature. One always gets something of value out of these academic conferences. I am intrigued by the shift from trees to networks as the paradigm of knowledge in our era and by our ideas of classical beauty giving way to complex beauty.

Networks are not just at the center of a scientific revolution; they are also contributing to a considerable shift in our conception of society, culture, and art, expressing a new sense of beauty. As we continuously strive to decipher many of their inner workings, we are constantly bewildered by their displays of convolution, multiplicity, and interconnectedness. And the most elaborate of schemes are the ones that apparently seduce us at the deepest level. — Manual Lima, Visual Complexity (2011)

This is a big idea, the only one at the conference. My colleagues and I were ready with a well-done yet admittedly modest idea. Is this the thing to do, which Lima has done: dedicate one’s self to bigger ideas and bigger projects?

Image credit: The Tree of the Two Advents, Joachim of Fiore (1202), via Brainpickings.org

Bounty of writers’ insights

Sweet autumn clematis (link) reaches its full beauty in early September and then lasts. I have a few spots of it in the yard — over an arbor in the front, along both sides of the chimney, and climbing up the neighbor’s fence — and this summer it exceeded its usual proliferation while I wasn’t looking. Suddenly, it seemed to explode into my attention. One day I said to a member of my editorial staff, Grace Guterman, “Please, when you have a moment, go out in the yard and take some photos for me!” I wanted to preserve the lushness. She did.

Also this month I have noticed in the news a proliferation of commentary from writers on writing that surprised me in some way. So that I don’t lose these good finds, I’m going to catalog and excerpt below the three that made the greatest impression on me.

1. Brian Martin recommends that writers train like athletes. Excerpts from his article in Tomorrow’s Professor:

Write for 15 to 30 minutes every day. Yes, that’s it: the core requirement is daily writing, at least five days a week, preferably seven.

Coaches expect their athletes – swimmers, runners and so forth – to train daily. Junior athletes are expected to show up for training every day, at the same time. Swimmers put in the laps and runners put in the miles. This sort of training enables dedicated high school athletes to achieve times better than world champions a century ago.

So what were top athletes doing back then? Those were the days of amateurs, usually from the upper class with spare time and access to facilities, who trained when they felt like it, typically on weekends. Very gentlemanly. But their performances weren’t outstanding by today’s standards.

What about writing? Most academics seem to be operating like the gentleman athletes of the past. They wait until they feel like writing. That usually means when they have a big block of time, or are forced to meet a deadline.

Most academics learn binge-writing from doing assignments in high school or undergraduate years. Binging becomes increasingly dysfunctional as tasks become larger. Writing an essay overnight is possible, but completing a 300-page thesis requires planning and sustained work. Continue reading

Imagine the luck of her future second graders

Grace and I have been bitten by the organizing bug, and we are culling our collections. I took four boxes marked “Jane’s Junk” and got them down to one, and Grace has stripped her closet down to the essentials and tackled her desk drawers. Last night she came across a list made five years ago when she was in the second grade. Knowing I like to save the textual artifacts of childhood, Grace handed it to me. You can click on the thumbnail to see the scanned version in full size or read the transcript below.

From the handwriting, it looks like Jimmy and I took turns at dictation. I asked Grace, “What was this list for?”

She replied, “When I was in second grade and thinking about becoming a teacher, I thought it would be neat to be able to tell my second graders some day what I was like when I was their age.”

This is what she was like, as reported on November 15, 2007:

When Grace was in 2nd grade, she

  • was an artist
  • gave affection to all
  • swam on the JCC swim team
  • had experience as Ms. Aibel’s student and “teaching assistant”
  • could make her own French fries
  • watched Zoe 101
  • loved to snuggle
  • was a Brownie
  • had an electric toothbrush that played a song by Jesse McCartney
  • wore her hair in two braids every day
  • loved the comfort of yoga pants

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Grace, or Eli or Lydia, became a teacher? Then there would be three generations of us: my father, my mother-in-law, I, and one of the kids. Now that would be a family legacy.

Writer’s Dozen: William Zinsser and Voice

This is the second in a series of posts, called “A Writer’s Dozen,” on texts that have been important to me as a writer.

In learning to write, there is always some unlearning to do. As writers, we build up our vocabularies and strategies in ways useful to us, but sometimes we get locked into those ways, and our writing becomes disembodied, unnatural, overwrought, show off-y. For writing to be good and worth reading, it has to fit the rhetorical situation and have a voice – a real one that could only come from that writer.

For me, the best definition and treatment of “voice,” as it applies to writing, comes from William Zinsser in his On Writing Well (1976): it is your “commodity as a writer” and conveys your “attitude toward language.” As writer, it is uniquely you.

Last week, some colleagues and I were reading stacks of essays by first-year students, as part of a writing assessment project at another local university. We read in mostly silence, but on our lunch and coffee breaks we would discuss features of student work that we liked or didn’t like. This is the writing teacher’s version of water-cooler gossip.

Uniformly we were irked by students using 50-cent words when plainer ones would do. For example, instead of using “posit” as a verb, which we saw used repeatedly in one essay, we prefer “state” or “argue” when quoting from an article or book or “say” when quoting from an interview.

The fancy word choices enraged one or two of my colleagues. I like a more straightforward style myself, but I understand why students write in what they believe to be a more formal register: to sound smart and to reach the teacher. (For a nice discussion of register, try this: link.)

Entering the academy and the conventions of academic writing is “like learning a new language,” I suggested to my colleagues. “It’s awkward at first, and it takes some mastery of the language before you use it naturally.” Before you get to the point of sounding like a native, there’s a lot of stilted use that doesn’t sound quite right to experienced ears.

I mostly practiced creative writing when I was in high school, and I was considered to be a fluent writer. When I got to college, however, and turned in my first academic paper – over which I had toiled devotedly and seriously – and got an F for a grade, with the comment, “This is not an analytical essay,” I realized I was unprepared for this new country called College and its strange customs. It was a new start and a tough one. Continue reading

The agony of writing comments on student work

That’s me, sitting at my desk at home, which is really the dining room table, where dining rarely happens. We usually eat in the kitchen unless company comes, and then I put away my laptop, power cord, scratch paper, and pen.

Lydia took this candid photo with her phone when I wasn’t paying attention to her. The draft of a report by a student was diverting me from my own students, aka children, and their homework.  Sometimes Lydia and Grace spread their books and worksheets on the same table, and we homework-it alongside each other. Let’s hope this gives me credit someday for being an involved parent.

The past two weeks have been all about final papers and final presentations, and I have been meeting with students, helping them rehearse talks and improve slides, and reading submissions. Have I worked on my own writing? Not really. I have thought about it.

In a recent column on her writing habits, Anna Quindlen, who writes every day between 9am and 3pm — “an elementary school schedule” — argues that a writer must lead “a humdrum life” and not “write other stuff.” If you have a busy life, and you are writing other stuff (like, I infer, comments on student writing), “you won’t write it.”  Here, the pronoun it stands in for all that glorious self-authored work a writer is destined to do, unless responsibility gets in the way.  Too many lunches, Quindlen adds, also get in the way.

She invokes her Barnard writing professor, B.J. Chute, who told Quindlen and her classmates “not to take jobs that involved writing of any kind because there was no chance we would then go home at night and take up our own material.”  Very good point. I do wonder, though, how fiction writer B.J. Chute managed to get her teaching done without writing on student work. Continue reading

Critical thinking must involve communicating too

A recent post on Tomorrow’s Professor itemizes and describes seven intellectual habits of critical thinkers.

Critical thinking is one of those qualities that are prized in teaching and learning but is often evoked as a good thing without being nailed down. Like “art” or “emotional intelligence,” we believe in it, we know it when we see it, but we haven’t always formulated for ourselves what we understand it to be. The list below, by Edmund J. Hansen, primarily situates the use and cultivation of critical thinking in school, with some references also to its importance in society.

I must admit I read this list with myself more as thinker and not teacher in mind. Do I consistently practice these seven intellectual habits? Do you?

  1. Intellectual Humility: Be aware of one’s biases and prejudices, the limitations of one’s viewpoint, and the extent of one’s ignorance.
  2. Intellectual Courage: Face and fairly address ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints toward which one has strong negative emotions and to which one has not given a serious hearing. Recognize that ideas that society considers dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified.
  3. Intellectual Empathy: Imaginatively (and, I would add, regularly) put oneself in the place of others so as to genuinely understand them.
  4. Intellectual Integrity: Be true to one’s own thinking and hold oneself to the same standards one expects others to meet. Honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in one’s own thought and action.
  5. Intellectual Perseverance: Be disposed to work one’s way through intellectual complexities despite the frustration inherent in the task.
  6. Confidence in Reason: Believe that one’s own higher interests and those of humankind at large will be best served by giving the freest play to reason, by encouraging people to come to their own conclusions by developing their own rational faculties. Also have faith that, with proper encouragement and cultivation, people can learn to think for themselves.
  7. Intellectual Autonomy: Maintain an internal motivation based on the ideal of thinking for oneself; having rational self-authorship of one’s beliefs, values, and way of thinking. Depend not on others for the direction and control of one’s thinking.

I reflected on Hansen’s Habits of Critical Thinkers and noticed that he emphasizes the individual’s responsibility to the self as thinker, reasoner, judger, and perseverer and the benefits one might gain from these habits. Not that he ignores responsibility to others — after all, Hansen is a teacher and promotes these habits in education — but the actions he describes are largely mental, interior, and personal.

This list needs an eighth habit, and it’s one I discern among the ones he has articulated. While the seven above are lifted and paraphrased directly from Hansen, the one below has been crafted, albeit from his principles, by me:

8. Intellectual Advocacy: Be responsible for preparing and communicating — whether in text, speech, graphics, or other publicly available media — reasoned arguments that consider and advance ideas, proposals, and analysis that represent one’s deep thinking, careful study, and sincere concern.

I add this here as much as a reminder for myself as it is for any readers. Often, I pride myself on my skill at weighing information and others’ views. However, I often keep my thoughts to myself, wondering if this battle or that one is worth fighting. I have historically given too much credence to an axiom I learned as a child: “Silence speaks volumes.” Silence, in fact, does not speak at all. Critical thinking gets society nowhere without the thoughtful, well-reasoned, and even impassioned — if passion suits — communication of thinking’s results.

A person must use her critical thinking to question and investigate her own convictions, but she must have the courage to argue for the ones she has examined and can support with evidence (including examples), analysis, and reflection. Do this according to Hansen’s Habits: with honesty, humility, empathy, integrity, persistence, and autonomy.

Image by Jimmy Guterman, on the jetty/walking path to Boston’s Castle Island, April 29, 2012.

A magical place where coffee grows on trees

This magical place exists not too far away, in Milton, MA, where my sister Sally lives and where she spotted this perfect blue cup hanging from a tree. Sally sent a picture my way. The next day, walking the same route, the cup was still there. Later it disappeared.

There is a place in my brain activated by the word “coffee,” by the implements of coffee, and by the thing itself. If you’re my friend and you like coffee (James or Marcia, for example), then I like you extra. Siblings, you too.

Every coffee story or image reminds me of another one. Recently in one of my early classes, I got to the lab  right on time, 9 a.m.  It’s a big enough class that several other instructors are involved, and one of them is in the habit of stopping at Dunkin Donuts on the way in and buying munchkins to share and a coffee for himself. On this particular morning, I hadn’t had time to get my own coffee, and I felt forlorn, although I did fake a good coffee alertness face. And yet my eyes kept tracking the movement of Phil’s giant iced coffee around the room. I was like a dog who perks up when people food is about to be served: ears pointed, nose twitching, eyes wide.

The coffee-bearer offered the box of doughnut holes around, one instructor at a time. He reached me. “Do you want one?” he asked.

“Actually, I’ve been eying your coffee,” I admitted, perhaps panting a little.

“Oh, by all means have some!” he said enthusiastically.

I got a cup from near the wash-up sink. I held it out to him; he took the top off his plastic cup and poured. I was happy — it had not been hard to get what I wanted. I drank.

An hour passed as student teams worked on their projects, and instructors hovered around helping and prompting. I kept my eye on Phil’s iced coffee and noticed that half remained, with ice still bobbing in it. Want more? he signaled by pointing at the cup.

I nodded. He walked over and refilled my cup. “You’re like my dealer,” I said and smiled. He laughed.

Image by Sally Kokernak Millwood, found April 10, 2012 in Milton, MA. Thanks, sis!

Ebb and flow, everyone. Ebb and flow.

“Let go your thoughts.” Portia, the yoga teacher, gently suggests this a few times in the first half hour.

I try of course, even though it is ironic that it takes effort — and it really does — to let go. A thought is like a rubber raft on water, and I nudge its pliable edge. The thought floats away, yet it floats back.

About one time out of 10, I experience the state of gone thoughts. Once, my thoughts were so gone I even felt my inner state exert an almost hand-like effort, reaching for and coaxing them back. But thoughts kept floating away, slipping and shapeless.

Nine times out of 10, the most I can do is let go of my emotional attachment to what may be on my mind. This happens mostly when I’m on my back with my eyes closed. “Oh, so I’m thinking that,” I think, and I watch it like a movie without a plot. But I watch.

I have persistently wondered if I’m just not a yoga person in the mental way. Most of the time in everyday life it’s hard to look at my thoughts dispassionately.

We end yoga in sitting position, and we face the teacher. We hold our hands pressed together in front of our hearts, and our fingers point up. Portia says, “Namaste,” to each of us. In turn, we say, “Namaste,” to her.

Then it’s over.

She tidies the room for the next group as we collect our shoes and bags. Today as she wandered about, Portia said in her low and unhurried voice, “Ebb and flow, everyone. Ebb and flow.”  (Before class, she had mentioned a problem with her cell phone, and I felt relief that she was of this world.)

I grinned and said, “I like ‘Ebb and flow’ so much better than ‘Be here now.'”

Uncharacteristically, she gently huffed and said more sotto voce, “Oh. We could have a long conversation about that one.” She paused; her lips pressed together. “Yeah,” she said with finality.

This felt like a connection. And maybe I am a yoga person.

Image of water plants from a February 2009 trip to the Wellesley College Greenhouses. My spring break is coming up. Time for a return visit.

On teaching: some lessons via David Byrne

In February 2009, we went to see David Byrne and his band at Radio City Music Hall. The tour marked the occasion of Byrne’s new album, Everything That Happens Happens Today, with Brian Eno.

When the curtain opened, the audience saw the full band and dancers dressed in white and poised to play and Byrne himself also dressed in white but with his back to the audience. We could see his guitar strapped to him, although it was partly blocked from our view by his back.

We don’t expect this as audience: our first encounter with the performer ignoring us. He’s there for us, right?

In my seventh row seat, however, the teacher in me — immediately and without much reflection — got it. Facing an audience takes so much out of a person, even if he is accustomed to that encounter, that Byrne was delaying that moment. He was on stage and yet easing his way into it.

This memory and its interpretation is clearly my projection of an inner state on Byrne’s; I actually have no idea for this back-to-the-audience stance. (Indeed, when I mentioned this to Jimmy, who has a different memory of the show, he said, “Maybe Byrne was talking to the drummer and the curtain suddenly went up, and he was caught there.”) This interpretation is about me and my relationship to my audience, i.e. students, much in the way my dream about Beck was about me.

Unless you are a raging extrovert and love the limelight, it takes some psychic sturdiness and a little push to get one’s self, as a teacher, to stand up in front of those students every day and really be the teacher.

Today, writing in the New York Times about his experiences as high school teacher of students with learning disabilities (please read his great essay!), William Johnson describes one dimension of the job that requires special fortitude:

Like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.

[…] If our students are not learning, the let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies.

And if they are college students, sometimes they just fall asleep. Continue reading