Lavers on The Simple Life

My previous post Fred Stutzman and Facebook reminded me of an essay from the May/August 2000 issue of North American Review. The essay I tore out and kept in my "Essays" folder lo these many years was by the writer Norman Lavers, now retired from teaching English and enthusiastically maintaining a site on The Robber Flies of Crowley's Ridge, Arkansas. If you want to know all there is to know about these vicious critters, that's the site for you.

The essay he wrote, titled "On the Simple Life," is a fine personal essay that sweeps over the course of his life, the choices he made, and the choices he continues to make. It's a cranky, curmudgeonly view of the modern world. He preaches about retiring early in your life and then going to work, being frugal with your time, money, and attention ("kill your TV" advice), and generally simplifying your life by letting go of the things that aren't needed in favor of the essentials that honor you.

The reason I kept the essay, I think, was that he put into words something I'd not seen up to that point. I've seen it since (Stutzman mentions it in my previous post) but I've come back to it so much in my mind that I thought I'd put the passages here.

He compares the bombardment of TV images to the Web's bombardment of opinion, flash, etc. You can guess his opinion.

Get off the internet. Oh, how can I? It's got everything on it. Exactly, and you're letting it all into your house and into your mind. Be more selective...[O]n the net, I have my privacy. You don't, you've let the whole world in. You've let everybody in, and yet no one's there. Virtual people have invaded your privacy. They're god-awful boring, but you're too mesmerized to respond by turning them off...

An essential part of getting off the web is: Don't do e-mail. But it's so convenient, so cheap, you will tell me. That's the problem. ..I inveighed against e-mail in one of my classes and a girl said, "Oh, but this is how I've been able to keep in touch with all my friends from high school. Without e-mail I couldn't have done it." I was too polite, of course, to say, You should be leaving those kids behind and getting on with your life. If you wouldn't have kept in touch without e-mail, it means you probably shouldn't be keeping in touch now. They are getting in the way of your maturing.

If someone distant wants to get in touch with me, he's going to have to sit down and write me a letter. It takes time, it costs the price of a stamp. He's going to have to say something that will still be valid several days later when I receive his letter. If I'm not worth it to him, then his emailed Have a nice day! is not worth my receiving...If I had e-mail, I would have a sort of obligation to checked to see what I had each day, and 99% of it (to judge by what my friends say) would be trash, another invasion of privacy. With letters, they come in the box, you can open them when you're ready, read them a few times, answer at your leisure, It's a more humane rhythm. Letters can approach to literature. Can you imagine wanting to read Keats's collected e-mail notes? E-mail is like television: you do it because it is free and easy--but in return it takes away your time, and for one good thing you get from it, you get 99 things of dross. If you are actively doing literary or scientific research, where real information is being exchanged, or if it's part of your job, okay, yes. For communication with people, no.

Lavers' preferred mode of engagement is to grow one's own creative projects, having to do with art or with nature, activities that take you out of yourself and place you in a state of meditation. Hence his enthusiasm with the Robber Flies.

Yes, it's over the top, but I like his firm this-is-how-it-is tone, which is what makes reading essays fun. Certainly, junk mail is an invasion of privacy, and one is not ever obligated to return an email immediately after it's been received.

But I was struck by Lavers' point about e-mail keeping alive relationships that should probably die a natural death and Fred's point about middle-aged Facebook users reconnecting with people from their high school and college days 20 or more years before. There is the warm flush of remembering what we used to be like, and there's a pleasing nostalgia that's surely fine to experience now and then, if only to remind us that maybe those old days weren't so bad. But we aren't those people anymore, and I don't wish to go back to that foreign country anymore. (A no-prize for whoever gets that literary reference!) And the economics of energy, time, and attention are such that we only have resources for the immediate, not the distant.

When I entered NCSU in 1979, I kept in touch with a few friends from high school (some of whom were in my freshman classes) but by my sophomore year, I was in a new world with new friends. When I left college, it took longer to separate myself from that comfortable world, but I eventually landed in Rocky Mount and started a new life there. I left in 1988 and brought no one with me from my 4 years there. If email had been around then, how long would I have stayed attuned to the local gossip, the dramas? I don't know. Given my state of mind and emotions at the time, I would probably have kept up an unhealthy level of attachment. It was good for me that email and FB weren't around back then.

Instead, I did (and still do) as Lavers suggested: I wrote letters. Letters to friends served as my journal, my writing practice, my meditation time. These days, with so little time available to me to get into the mindset that letter-writing demands, I send cards instead. I even send them to friends to who live nearby. There's something just more special and personal to me when I see an envelope with a stamp and a handwritten address. I think it's special enough to send to dear friends and I do it simply because I enjoy it. I don't expect reciprocity or obligation--that's not the reason to write to friends who've stood the test of time. One does it because of love and attachment and, I think, creative expression. Selfish reasons, ultimately, but delightful ones, as well.

Unit Structures

LONDON - FEBRUARY 03: (FILE PHOTO)  In this ph...
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Fred Stutzman is a PhD student at SILS and the creator of numerous good things, among them ClaimID and the Mac-based Freedom (which I used today to good effect).

He has a blog, Unit Structures, and tends to post announcements of upcoming events or good 'n' chewy postings related to his research interests of social networking and social software.

I liked today's post very much, which ties into one of my favorite aphorisms, from Louis Pasteur: "Opportunity favors the prepared mind." The lesson is that although passion for your product can pull you through the low times, you still need basic presentation skills if you want to be heard. My favorite line:

Notably, the research found that having taken public speaking lessons was a significant factor, indicating that communication skill, if not passion, was still important.

Digression 1: I've wondered about teachers who don't take public speaking or presentation classes or workshops -- or at the very least, some kind of vocal training. I know from the years I spent acting in amateur theater that a good voice was rare, but your own voice and presentation could be developed and made stronger. Certainly, professors get years of practice at speaking that most people who go to Toastmasters don't get, but still -- even in the classroom, it's all about presentation.

Whenever Facebook is in the news, Fred usually has a considered and contextual opinion on the issue, with a prescription for how FB should move forward from this. Facebook's recent misfire with its Terms of Service elicited a good-sized posting, with this as my favorite passage:

Mark Zuckerberg talks about Facebook as if it was a country. If Facebook were a country, it would more accurately resemble North Korea or China than the United States.

Fred also weighed in on the 25 Things meme that tagged all of us on FB, but uses it as a meditation on the phenomenon of refreshing or renewing dormant connections. I'm certainly seeing more people from my college years appearing on FB and connecting with me (or me touching base with them), and other friends are seeing high school chums reaching out to them. Fred wonders about the value of this activity:

We’ve all had the email or telephone reconnection with an old friend - after you have the getting-reacquainted conversation, is it really practical to re-integrate the individual into your life? More often than not, it simply isn’t practical (especially if geographic distance is a factor). This doesn’t take away from the wonder of reconnection and the warm feeling it produces - it just means that mediating technologies don’t change everything. Our everyday needs and processes exist higher up in the hierarchy of needs, and reconnection and maintenance of an extended social network is time-consuming.

Digression 2: I am, in fact, wondering how many of my current "cohort" at UNC I'll be in touch with after the next 2 years. When I think of the places I've lived and worked, I've actually carried very few people with me from those places. When I left a job, I left my co-workers there. The time we spent was productive and intense and, I hope, enjoyable, but it wasn't lasting, and the space I left behind was quickly filled.

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Is grad school a good idea?

Penelope Trunk trots out one of her regularly visited themes: why grad school is a bad idea. It rankled me a bit but I do have to remember that she’s talking to twenty-somethings and I’m a forty-odder. Her advice would be right-on to my 23-year-old self: I had very little direction, a graduate degree would have been wasted on me, and my next 25 years or so would be spent working (or not), gathering experience. and developing as a person.

The comments to her post are as opinionated, so she succeeded in stirring up some thoughts and opinions (much of it taking her to task–rightly–for her crack about the military.) Though I kind of understand her point – if you don’t have a direction, then entering grad school or the military could lead down paths that may not be right for you – it was a carelessly thought out remark.

As many of the commenters note, a graduate degree can bump up your pay grade (that’s what my employer does) and, after years of job-hopping, it can be useful to get a degree that tells the world – your bosses, your peers – that you do in fact know what you’re doing.

My manager is getting an MBA through NCSU and it’s been a transformative experience for him: he’s made great local contacts, he’s extended his skillset, and he now has a degree that qualifies him for bigger and better-paying jobs. Had he simply read the books and gone to local networking meet-ups, he would never have received the validation that he gets when he meets with his managers and with local executives in meetings set up by his school.

For myself, I have enjoyed my master’s experience tremendously. One of the most important things I learned was that I can apply my odd agglomeration of skills and abilities to more than the narrow band of activities I’ve grown accustomed to. The other important thing was that it awoke my intellectual side, which the last 25 years of work has rather successfully smothered (except when it was useful to the project, of course). And I’ve found my professors to be up to date on what’s happening in the big ol’ world outside of Manning and to be very generous with introductions to people they know in academe and industry, thus extending my personal network.

Still, her article is one of those goads that my reticular activating system has been sending my way as I contemplate the PhD. Does it make sense to leave a guaranteed paycheck to go to school full-time in this economy? Will I be able to find work as a 50-something PhD when I graduate? What, really, do I want to do with my life and will grad school help me get there?

That’s the real question I think Penelope means for her readers to ask themselves.

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Financiers tell their not-for-attribution account of the mortgage crisis like this: Americans undersaved and overspent for decades, relying on rising property values to bankroll their lifestyles. But nobody on Wall Street forced United States homeowners to take out loans on houses they couldn’t afford, or refinance mortgages to spend money on cars they shouldn’t have bought.

Research Journal for my 780 class

Cover of "7 Up"
Cover of 7 Up

Since our 780 Research Methods class doesn’t have a Blackboard site for the class, I’ll post my various links and thoughts to the blog, tagged with “780.”


I wonder if Michael Apted’s wonderful Up series of documentary interviews would be an example of a kinda sorta longitudinal study or panel study? When a new film comes out every 7 years with updates on these people, it’s always fascinating to see where life has -- or hasn’t -- taken them. Instead of gathering statistics about a large group of people, there's something very satisfying about getting to know a small group of people very well.


We’ve been talking about experiments, planning a study, theories, types of studies, etc. One of our last readings was about where one gets ideas for theories. This reminded me of Seth Roberts, a Berkeley researcher in psychology, who frequently touts self-experimentation as a way to generate research ideas. This is one of his more famous papers. He maintains an active and entertaining blog.

What I admire about Seth Roberts is his abundant idea-generation and his zeal for measurement and record-keeping. His goal is to experiment on himself first, then if his data indicates that there are possibly interesting results, then he proceeds with more methodical testing and inquiry, possibly leading to more formalized studies (or not).

When I’ve been thinking about possible studies I might like to try, I remember this quote from one of his blog posts:

SR: Tell me something you've learned about research design.

BW: When I was a graduate student [at the Stanford Business School], I would jog on the school track. One day on the track I met a professor who had recently gotten tenure. He had only published three articles (maybe he had 700 in the pipeline), so his getting tenure surprised me. I asked him: What's the secret? What was so great about those three papers? His answer was two words: "Cool data." Ever since then I've tried to collect cool data. Not attitude surveys, which are really common in my area. Cool data is not always the easiest data to collect but it is data that gets buzz, that people talk about.

Thinking about what “cool data” might mean in a digital curation or archival or info-science context can be tough. I think the social networks are certainly perceived as cool and you can do cool stuff with them, certainly, but I’m not that curious about them. I feel like, were I to study one of them, I’d just be chasing a parade that’s got a five-mile headstart. Better to find my own parade. :)

Curiosity is probably what drives me. Certainly, one of the itches that a researcher must scratch is his or her own personal obsession with some nagging question or detail that no one has really addressed or answered to their satisfaction. (The same way most writers have to write their own poems, stories, and plays, because no one else is publishing what they want to read.)

Check out his numerous posts tagged scientific method (though he’s more usually critical of scientists’ behavior than the method itself) and self-experimentation for more.


Another great Seth Roberts post that got my attention was this one on appreciative thinking, especially as it relates to reading journal articles. I see what he describes in the classes I attend, where we read a paper that’s 1 year, 5 years, or 10 years old, and it’s rather thoroughly shredded during the ensuing discussion for any number of reasons (and I've been guilty of trashing articles, myself).

Instead of this negative critical thinking, I like his suggested questions to ask instead, especially the simplicity of his fifth question: “What’s interesting or enjoyable about it?” Even if I find the writing of an article stilted or atrocious, I think it should be possible to at least admire a piece’s energy, its intent, its point of view, its ability to stir thoughts in me, etc. Saying something constructive is not about becoming a positive-thinking ninny; it's about seeing more sides of the issue than only one.

Even for a piece (Mabry's "Reference Interview as Partnership") that didn’t really touch me, I appreciated that this was the author's distillation of a career’s worth of lessons that she wanted to impart. In my summary of the piece, I said I could see it being used to start a conversation about one’s own personal manifesto for serving at a reference desk. We’re not often asked to reflect on our larger purpose or philosophy when it comes to our jobs, or even our career, so I saw the Mabry piece as a terrific starting point for such a conversation.


Speaking of writing up experiments so they’re repeatable -- how often does repeating an earlier experiment really happen?

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But forced idleness is a good thing, especially for a workaholic like I, and while I feel as if the knowledge I used to use at work, such as my ability to distinguish Jenson and Caslon (or Sunday and Monday), or the keystroke commands for Flash MX, are seriously diminished, it’s been replaced by the weird farrago of art-making skills, writing skills, arcane interests (nuclear explosions, gnosticism, mycology) and stuff I read, not entirely a bad thing, but I’ve all but ceased to be professionally useful, and as someone said recently, happiness consists of knowing that one is safe, loved and useful.

Annoying Firefox problem fixed

For the last couple of months, I've had an incredibly annoying problem in Firefox, when entering text into text boxes: the cursor would disappear, the text box would appear to lock up, and I'd have to click inside the text box to resume typing. Often, too, I'd hit the Backspace key and this would jump me back to a previous page, causing me to lose what I'd been writing. I did several searches on this problem and finally located the answer here. I had set several bookmarks in my beloved Speed Dial extension to automatically update every hour or every four hours, etc. For my Gmail, I had it ping my inbox every few minutes. It was these dial-outs that robbed the focus from the text boxes: as I typed, Speed Dial was checking a web site and updating the thumbanil, and Firefox -- unable to serve two masters -- left me bereft.

Not wanting to disable Speed Dial, I instead set the bookmark updates to Never, and this seems to be working.

Assorted links

Four Sharpier permanent markers, showing black...
Image via Wikipedia
  • Doomsday for 2009 is ... Saturday.
  • Mary Ellen Bates says goodbye to several Google apps, and ponders Microsoft's persistent relevance. I'll miss Google Notebook, myself.
  • Better ways to run a workshop. And some damn fine YouTube examples of Patrick McGoohan at work.
  • Chris Blattman summarizes Rapture indicators from The Rapture Index site: "The prophetic speedometer of end-time activity". And no, I sure as hell ain't linking to that site. Chris does that so I don't have to.
  • Michael Leddy at Orange Crate Art excerpts a neat paragraph on why a long, inefficient search can yield better results in the long-term than instant retrieval.
  • Man decorates basement with $10 worth of Sharpie. Sorry, can't remember where I got this. I love the 360-degree view of his newly decorated basement. If I could draw that well, and had his nerve, this world would be a different place. Update: But Liz says it makes the walls look like cardboard.
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What's ahead for ol' Mikey?

Inspired by Rani’s post about her upcoming work (hope that’s going well for you, Rani), it’s probably a good idea for me to look at the months ahead.

  • The spring semester starts tomorrow. I’m spending today cleaning up my office, recycling pages and pages of article printouts, putting away the CDs we used for the road trip, filing away end of the year stuff, etc. I’m working this project a little at a time.
  • I noodled on the fellowship essay over the Christmas break, trying to find my way into the material.  I want to work on the essay this weekend, also. I was advised to emphasize that I want to teach and also talk about my research areas of interest. The former is easy, the latter is more difficult. Digital curation covers a lot of conceptual and technical ground, and I have a sneaking suspicion it’s a conundrum that will never be solved, only chased. Still, I find actually having to write out and make a case for myself forces me to confront many of these still-nebulous issues. The thinking and writing also provide me with the words, phrases, and thoughts I need when talking to advisors about my plans.
  • I’m taking the Research Methods class; generally, you take this the semester before you work on your master’s paper (which is usually your graduation semester), but I wanted to take it early. I have an idea for a neighborhood survey and wanted to get it started.
  • I’m also taking an independent study to be supervised by my friend Carolyn. We opted to go for the 3-hour option, which means about 9 hrs/week of outside work. We decided to go for a research study; I did some reading, sent her some ideas, and we’ll discuss them next week. The goal is to create a paper, a poster, or a product of some kind that can be published. I’m hoping the Research Methods class and the independent study activities dovetail. I view the independent study as a road-test for my interest in research and in digital curation; if I really have to flog myself to get to the end of the track, then I should reconsider the PhD in this field.
  • UNC is hosting two conferences this spring I want to attend: the iConference and the DigCCurr 2009.  The former is interesting to me as a place to see academics in the wild, so to speak. and how I resonate to their discussions and concerns. Same for the DigCCurr, though I’m more interested there in talking to folks, introducing myself, and getting a general buzz from the attendees on the state of play in the field. Since I’m targeting that field for my doctoral studies, I need to get familiar with it. I registered for the iConf and volunteered for the DigCCurr, but am wondering whether registering for the latter would give me more free time to roam and mingle.
  • I opted not to sign up for the full-level of coaching this year, mainly because I didn’t have the money. I will have enough, though, to sign up for a lower-level membership that still gives me all I need. Since starting my coaching in 2006, I’ve noticed big and small changes in myself that I can’t imagine having made on my own and so I want to continue my association with PJ Eby, especially with the book he’s writing that seems to be drawing together into a single narrative all of the myriad tools he’s refined over the last two years. PJ has the goods.
  • I’m beta-testing Mark Forster’s latest time/task management scheme, dubbed AutoFocus. You can sign up to be a beta-tester here. It’s not an application, more a set of instructions and simple rules to create a structure that balances the rational and intuitive parts of your mind to help you decide which tasks to do next. He recommends implementing it via pen and paper (which I prefer) but many users on the forum are describing electronic ways of implementing it. All that’s needed is a lined notebook or journal. Radically simple and I’m finding it very effective for shaking loose a lot of tasks I’ve procrastinated on. The danger that some of the beta-testers are experiencing is in overthinking the system, adding more rules, creating exceptions, etc. Will be interested to see how it copes when school starts!
  • And I suppose I need to think about the PhD, too, don’t I? Yes, well. I’m hoping the independent study and my general immersion in study and research this semester will illuminate things for me. I’m going to have to make some decisions very soon, perhaps by February, that will affect what happens to me in the fall.  My manager and I expect that by June the wheels will either be in motion for me to leave my job and start my doctoral studies, or I’ll have decided that a PhD (or this PhD) is not for me at this time. After spending the last 2 years getting to this point, I am still unsure of what I really want out of this experience and where I will be when it’s over. I do still struggle between the academic and the practitioner roles; they seem to be at loggerheads, though they shouldn’t be. But there seem to be more days when I want to be the latter than the former.
  • I’m noticing that lately I say “no” to myself a little more easily when it comes to spending discretionary time to read another news feed or do a web walkabout. I’m foreseeing the next 5 months being as intense as I want to make them. So if I can’t wholeheartedly say “yes” to something, I’m inclined to turn it down.
  • Assuming I do leave my job, then our household income takes a mighty hit. So we’re starting to hunker down and get frugal, in preparation for the lean times.
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Aronson wanted a five-to-six-minute clip of a normal-looking couple having sex with condoms, and enjoying it. But few pornographic movies fit the bill. They invariably veered into exotic scenarios: the guy wearing a Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniform, the midget and the obese woman.

“I spent the better part of a week watching the movies,” he said. “They were boring as hell. One porno film is a turn-on. Fifty porno films is hell.”

While browsing around the site, I found that the Milk and Cheese vinyl toy set has been knocked down $10 to $59.95. Something to think about when that stimulus package kicks in and we’re all going crazy saving the economy. Think about it, baby. Alcohol, coffee and groceries disappear. Poof, they’re gone. Ethereal nonsense, you’ve just wasted your money, dude. These toys, however, will stand by you, remain with you, from one economic tragedy to another. You can even take them to the shelter to keep you company when things really tumble into the toilet. I’m pretty sure you can. And nobody will steal them, whereas they’d take so many other things you could waste your money on.

Okay, then. I think I’ve made my case. I think you know what to do.

Paul Graham:

I think the way to “solve” the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you. Work on an ambitious project you really enjoy, and sail as close to the wind as you can, and you’ll leave the right things undone.

On specifying your terms

One of the books I read over the Christmas vacation was Writing the Mind Alive, which one Amazon reviewer tags as the book to go to after freewriting has taken you as far it can. I used to write morning pages and still enjoy journaling, but I’m always open to new approaches and methods (the Topics du Jour approach being one that has most impressed me recently). The method was created by two ex-academics, who lead workshops on the method. Their web site is here.

The book is an easy and breezy read, and I appreciated the inclusion of students’ “Writes” (as the authors call them). The method is straightforward and, as some of the Amazon reviewers notes, not all of the ritual surrounding the Write–which includes lighting a candle and playing Baroque music–are really necessary. Also, the book (as one would expect) sings the praises of its “proprioceptive method,” affording it real and affecting emotional benefits to its practitioners.

What most separates the method, for me, is its direction to use what the authors call the “proprioceptive question” or PQ. As one transcribes one’s inner monologue and writes, “I hate it when my mother does that,” the method directs one to listen to the voice and then ask, “What do I mean by ___?” In this case, “what do I mean by hate?” or “what do I mean by that?” And then write out what you mean.

The goal, as the authors explain, is to dig out those details that are glossed over by the wallpaper words we use to not look too closely at the things that bother us. What do I mean by things? Remembered events, memories, assumptions, images, long-buried hurts, and the like.

I usually count a technical book a success if I can get at least one good idea out of it. I consider the PQ a good idea and one I’m going to start using in my own journaling. As I’ve found in my coaching and in monitoring my own self-talk, I will often make a blanket statement as if to say. “Of course, what I’ve said is true and inviolable and not to be questioned.” But as I’ve gotten rid of various blocks and taken risks and experienced successes, I’m seeing more and more the value of exercising some healthy skepticism by making my assumptions explicit and bringing them out into the open where they can be dealt with.

The whole idea of defining one’s terms hove into my view first due to an email newsletter by Laurie Taylor, host of BBC4 Radio’s Thinking Allowed. I admire the way Taylor always attempts to connect that week’s program to a personal anecdote and his lighthearted style is welcome. Here’s his 21-Dec-2008 newsletter:

I had a university tutor in psychology who was popularly known as Doctor Dit.  For a couple of terms I assumed along with my fellow students that this was an innocent nickname.  But then one day I was told by a postgraduate that it was really an acronym.  It was not DIT but DYT and the letters stood for Define Your Terms.

It was a very appropriate designation.  Whereas other tutors would positively encourage some debate in their seminars, the man known as DYT would immediately bring any such discussion to a halt by a demand for definitions.  It was not unlike being repeatedly hit over the head ‘Right.  Taylor, what is value of optical illusions in the study of perception?’ ‘Well,’ one would begin, ‘When your eyes are deceived it could be that the deception is the inappropriate application…’ ‘Not so fast, Taylor.  You said ‘deception?’ ‘That’s right’ ‘Define your terms.  Define your terms.’

Over coffee in the basement canteen we’d wonder about the nature of Dyt’s home life.  We’d construct scenarios in which Mrs Dyt turned to him over breakfast coffee one morning and announced her dissatisfaction with the sexual side of their marriage.  ‘We don’t make love any more.’  That would really get Dyt going.  ‘Make love?  Make love?  Define your terms.  Define your terms.’

Now that I look back on my time with Doctor Dyt, I feel more sympathetic to his intellectual crusade.  What he wanted to do was purge the world of all ambiguity and ambivalences.  He envisaged a time when people only used terms with precise definitions, a time when every flower in his intellectual garden would be precisely labelled.

Only when we reached that happy state, when the undergrowth of uncertainty had been cleared away, would we be able to arrive at hard and fast truths about the world.

But, of course, Dr Dyt’s enterprise was doomed to failure.  Words simply won’t sit still and have precise definitions hung around their necks.  Their meaning slips and slides: it is determined as Wittgenstein maintained by their many uses:

“Think of the tools in a toolbox: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.  The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.  (And in both cases there are similarities.)  Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script or print.  For their application is not presented to us so clearly.”

I’ve plucked that quotation from the introduction to Key Concepts in Education, a new book by Fred Inglis and Lesley Aers which doesn’t so much offer clear-cut definitions of such familiar educational terms as Assessment, Citizenship, Curriculum, Literacy and Pedagogy, as show how such terms have been variously used by people with different material and philosophical interests.  Dr Dyt would not have approved.

I think Taylor heightens his professor’s point of view and his own reaction for comic effect and to make a better point for the newsletter. But as I read about Dr. Dyt’s approach, I was thinking, “Yep, yep, good for you. That’s the way to do it. Don’t lecture. Let the student teach themselves.” When working with my coach or talking with one of my mentors at school, I find I do often have to say my assumptions out loud. I frequently find that the other person has a different assumption or interpretation of the term or concept; because I’m open about what I think I mean, they’re able to either set me straight or give me new information I wasn’t aware of.

A very simple tool, and easily dismissed because of its simplicity. But I think it has great potential, particularly in school, where I’m asking questions to associate new knowledge to old mental structures so as to create new structures. Defining one’s terms also helps thicken those endless essays and papers. And as I prepare to move into a potential role as teacher, I’m wondering how best to deploy this tool for good educational effect.

The key is to not become Dr. Dyt (if he was ever like that). Don’t ask the question endlessly of every word or idea that comes your way. Set boundaries so you don’t distract yourself. In the proprioceptive writing method, the Write is limited to 25 minutes, with specific follow-up questions to help the writer link the new information from the Write into a larger mental frame.

Michael Lewis, in a remarkable article on the end of the Wall Street boom he documented in his book Liar’s Poker, offered up this choice anecdote on the value of getting specific:

Both Daniel and Moses enjoyed, immensely, working with Steve Eisman. He put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. “Steve’s fun to take to any Wall Street meeting,” Daniel says. “Because he’ll say ‘Explain that to me’ 30 different times. Or ‘Could you explain that more, in English?’ Because once you do that, there’s a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they’re talking about. And a lot of times, they don’t!”

This also reminds me of the five whys method, used to find root causes of problems–stop at five. No need to burrow further down the rabbit hole (or your navel) to find the ultimate cause; after a certain point, you have to stop and put that information into action. Otherwise, the questioning becomes an exercise in itself, rather than a means to an end.

There’s a famous story of Confucius from the Analects:

Chi Wen Tzu always thought three times before acting. When Confucius heard of this, he said: “Twice is enough.”

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What I'm doing on my Christmas vacation

The digest-sized
Image via Wikipedia
  • Packed about 15 books (about half of them small cartooning or graphic novel-type books), of which I expect I’ll read 1.5. Right now am knocking back about 40 pgs/day of Lewis Shiner’s Black and White, which makes excellent use of its Durham background and locale.
  • Was up till about 2 am the other night troubleshooting my brother-in-law’s computer setup. I brought my Apple Extreme Router with us, thinking I could set up a wireless network so Liz and I could maintain the filthy computing habits we wallow in at home. Discovered that his modem already had wireless routing built-in, so spent most of my time getting our laptops to recognize the network.
  • Was up till 2 am this morning reviewing 1000+ emails in my “to read later” pile on Gmail. Decided that this cannot go on, as it falls squarely in the not urgent/not important quadrant. So have been unsubscribing from RSS feeds and newsletters as they land in my inbox.
  • Writing in my journal about what I want less/more of next year -- less input, more  output. Less fat, more muscle. Less spending, more saving. That kind of thing. (I’d actually wanted less computering and more reading over my Christmas break, but that’s not happening :D )
  • Playing with Phil’s kitties, Luke (aka Stinky Pete) and Zorro (aka Sweet William). Luke is now splayed across the dining room table, flicking his tail.
  • Decided I’d like to accomplish just 3 things a day, and they’re all the same things: 40 pages in Lew’s book, one blog post/day, some exercise every day. Anything else I accomplish above that very low bar is gravy. (One of those things being messing around with MacVim, for some unknown reason.)
  • Continue with thinking about the independent study, about how I want to organize myself and my time in the spring, and in general unplug myself from the all the web feeds and inputs I bombard myself with. While I enjoy the novelty of this intellectual snack food, I want space in my day to sit and think and mull and process what I’m consuming. Fewer diversions, more time.
  • My coach has asked us at recent seminars what qualities we want in our lives right now. I’m extending that to include what do I want in my life everyday in 2009--a little exercise, a little reading, a little quiet time, good social interactions, a better sleep schedule, etc. Part of what I’m doing now is wondering/imagining/picturing how that would work.
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