Category Archives: x3

Highlights of Cathy’s Now You See

Here are four thought-evoking highlights I’d like to shout out:A-scene-from-the-film-Goo-007

  • Cathy started with such a simple but vivid description of an experiment, exploring how we learn to recognize what is important and deserving of our attention and how that affects us later in life. As soon as I stretched my leg getting relaxed, thinking “Alright, nothing new, another article about neural science”, she called me out– stepping one foot further, she redefines children who have learning disabilities, that it’s not the kids, but rather the teaching techniques that are outdated and need to evolve. So many different types of argument sources from anecdotal to clinical and psychological are quoted to showcase by using changed teaching methods, students with ‘learning disabilities’ have flourished.
  • She points out that the current education conducted in a traditional way, is preparing young people for the past, not the future. Teach_Intel_class_17011_450Not only is she hammering the obsolete tested assessment methods, but she also disagree with the formalized learning environments. I indeed do see eye to eye with her that we need to  “question whether the form of learning and knowledge making we are instilling in our children is useful for their future” when the new “mass collaboration” modes of working is inevitable and necessary.
  • She uses technology as an analogy for the human mind, and that the brain is like an iPhone. brain-tutor-3d“From contemporary neuroscience we know the brain is a lot like an iPhone. It comes with certain basic communication functions bundled within it, and it has apps for just about anything… These iPhone apps represent the things we pay attention to, what counts for us, what we are interested in.”(p 14) What she was trying to do is showcasing how mind and technology can meet, with the latter becoming an extension of the mind, not simply a lifeless tool but an assistance to the mind.
  • Cathy puts forward is “mass collaboration by difference”. I consider she is collaboration1suggesting that it is no longer as important what you know as who you know, and we can distribute various parts of any given task among others who are dedicated to the same task with all kinds of social media technology’s assistance. She applies analogy of mass collaboration with basketball game, that “it is learning to work in which one is always aware of context and competition, in which one leverages one’s own abilities in a given situation with others in that situation in order to succeed. As the situation changes, other abilities are needed–yours, those of your coworkers–and what also changes is whom you work with and how you work together. It is always situational. Always contextual,and always about moving, sometimes with the ball, sometimes without.”(p 225)

So now, I start to question: Are we studying what we are going to use in the future?

There is this video showed by at least 3 hosting companies in the beginning of their own UD information sessions. As one of the attendees, I can’t help but took it personally and felt really offended. Bearing in mind Cathy’s fresh, revoluntionary ideas on teaching, working and learning, what do you think of this video?–

Cathy, Are We Really That Old?!

I really surprised what Cathy described particularly on “Working in the Future”. If this is true that multitasking and mass collaboration is the way of the future and that the separation of our lives into domains of work and home–a staple of 20th century life–is no longer fits the way many of us live, then why would we, why would the world still need to build shared office buildings?

Cathy Davidson says in her book that “No wonder we so often feel distracted and unproductive! How could it be otherwise when there is such a radical mismatch between workplace and work?”, and that “we are preserving old standards for measuring our achievements and haven’t yet made the changes we need to facilitate our success in a global economy that, everyone knows, has rearranged some of the fundamental principles of how the world does business.” (p167)

Her argument partially makes some sense that, for example, in my case, I can mostly do work at home or coffee house just as well as  in the officewith Internet and software all at my disposal. While I spend 30 minutes everyday to drive to the company and do tasks on the computer for one important reason: it’s far more efficient and idea inspiring if my colleagues and I communicate right there, at any time, fact-to-face. Thus whenever she brings up the contrast between old, current practice with the ever-evolving technology, I felt being tricked to buy an idea and she is imposing a ‘sales’ persuasion on me.

The central argument of this book is that because the world has changed so rapidly with technology, we need to restructure the way we work and learn, so as to meet new demands. oriented school and workplace, Cathy does not launch the argument at front, which could probably be greeted severely by all types of critiques and resistance if she did.

Choosing a slightly winding route, she started the book with a detailed intriguing narration of Duke University’s attention test– the gorilla experiment. The result revealed what is called “attention blindness”, that we perceive only a fraction of everything going on around us and it is a basic characteristic of the human brain to save space. But Cathy surprises me by not merely stopped here. She explored further, arguing that our attention blindness is a big problem that must be addressed especially now that the Internet has come along and changed everything about how our lives work. The Internet, she notes, has thrusts us into an interconnected, collaborative existence, marked by the total breakdown of barriers between work and leisure, public and private, home and office, domestic and foreign and so on. Contradictorily, she points out that although our lives have been irrevocably altered, our most important institutions, school and work, are staying the same, still running in the same way as a century ago as if nothing revoluntionary has occurred.

Regarding to school education, Cathy especially shows that learning should not be a torment or something people must be reinforced to do. Group activities and the liberal use of games, including video games, are not only more fun than textbook memorization and multiple choices, they are also much more effective at teaching the problem-solving skills today’s workers need. Plus these technology platforms have provided kids to self-learning and doing a better job themselves to prepare for the future than the mandatory test-based education system.

What I consider is that Cathy implies school multiple choice test system is acting as though new technologies are frivolous and non-existed, still requires students into one-size-fits-all learning. Those who cannot tailor themselves the mode are diagnosed with all sorts of disorders. Assuming what she said here is right, then does a college teacher have to create 25 different test sheets to his/her 25 individual students?  should the school administrator just simply cancel all the tests, do what Duke University did, handling out free iPads and letting students’ crowd sourcing and group creativity thrive like unattanded grass?

All I could think of to answer my own doubts is a chaotic society, with mess-up education system whose own existence has to be questioned in the end.

Whereas, some credits to Cathy: what Cathy’s book stands out from other publications on such theme of new scientific findings, is that she does not trying to making any positive or negative prophecy about whether technology is beneficial or not. But instead, she is digging into more fundamental idea that we can do better, more efficiently, by aligning our school, our workplace and our lives through virtual wires, which helps us becoming more fulfilled as individuals and a productive society as a whole.

She lost me in the persuasion but her anecdotal, wide-range citations made this book a delightful fresh reading.

What we Know About Swallows

The first paper in my ENGL110 class is Socratic Dialogue (where students pick an issue and then explore both sides of the issue through arguments in a dialogue form). A worried ENGL110 student sat in my office, knowing that she was not understanding the assignment but not knowing how to express why or how she did not understand.

“What do you think about the assignment?” I asked.

“I mean, it’s okay. I just have a hard time with it,” she said nervously, speaking faster and shifting nervously in her seat. “It’s really hard for me to think about what someone else might say. I really only like to think about facts. You know; things that are actually true.”

This emphasis on facts and truths—of knowing something absolute—is something that I feel like I’ve devoted my teaching life to challenging. One of my favorite things about teaching is getting students to the point with papers when they are nervous and uncertain and have to suddenly think in different ways that they have had to do before. That said, the US education system that Cathy Davidson mentions—one of tests and categories and memorization—hinders this kind of exploration that brings students (and myself) to an uncomfortable place without facts and test questions.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there is one scene when King Arthur and his knights must cross a bridge guarded by a man who will only allow them to cross if they can answer three questions correctly (if you want to see the whole thing, look here). Lancelot goes first and gets some pretty easy questions (“What is your name?” “What is your quest?” “What is your favorite color?”). He is allowed to cross without a problem. The second knight boldly steps up to answer his set of questions and is thrown a loop with a third question: “What is the capital of Assyria?” He cannot answer this question and is thrown off the bridge. The third knight is given the same set of questions as Lancelot, but he cannot answer the last question and it also thrown of the bridge. Then King Arthur steps up:

http://www.tubechop.com/watch/2183982

“How do you know so much about swallows?”
“Well you have to know these things when you’re a king, you know.”

King Arthur obscures in his answer the fact that he learned about different swallows from some French men guarding a castle he wanted to storm. His way of answering the question of how he obtained this knowledge implies that he is naturally intelligent or was trained in the arts of being kingly. Further, his knowledge destroys the question-asker himself and makes the bridge safe for all who would come after him.

I think that school feels to many students like this sort of arbitrary question and answer game. There are right answers and wrong answers and some people just know how to get these answers better than others. Teachers, I think, often come across as the great holders of truths/facts. They have this power of question-answering which they acquired somehow and just memorized better than others.

I’ve been in the same shoes as my question-fearing student. I’ve been afraid to consider the fact that things are not as they seem (and the teacher does not know all of the answers). But the “answers” to questions about the world are complex and multifaceted and are always changing. As Davidson says, “The process of unlearning in order to relearn demands a new concept of knowledge not as a thing but as a process, not as a noun but as a verb, not as a grade-point average or a test score but as a continuum” (19).

And I wonder: How can we teach unlearning and flexibility in our writing classrooms? How can we really show students how to call “facts” and commonly held assumptions about the world into question? How can we do all of this within a very resistant school structure which demands an old-school style of learning measurement? Am I–are you–willing to give up our notions of teacher authority in order to allow for the teaching of unlearning?

Compatible Specialization or Productive Friction?: Forms of Difference in Collaboration

In Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson demonstrates a real knack for taking 21st century concepts and terms that have received a great deal of bad press, like “crowdsourcing” and “hive mind,” and turning them on their heads to examine the possibilities they open up for productive learning and thinking. In the digital world, one big criticism of crowdsourcing is a sort of a variation on the “tragedy of the commons”: if no one feels responsible for the larger product, there’s a fear that the end results may be degraded in quality. In the world of composition studies, there is an additional fear of collaborative learning and writing: that it encourages consensus-building, which is often facilitated by glossing over dissent and difference. Marxist scholars like Greg Myers worry that collaborative learning, as it is commonly built into classroom pedagogy, simply reproduces harmful ideologies rather than calling attention to them. Davidson, however, insists that if difference and diversity are valued and emphasized, crowdsourcing has immense promise for its ability to innovate by combining the strengths of a number of individuals to find more creative, useful solutions than anyone could produce alone.

Davidson’s praise of crowdsourcing for “assum[ing] that no one of us individually is smarter than all of us collectively” (64) reminded me of a wildly popular TED Talk I watched several years ago, entitled “When Ideas Have Sex.” The speaker is Matt Ridley, a British journalist with a particular interest in the concept of collective intelligence as the primary engine of human progress. In the short video clip below, he explores the basic math of how different human skills can be pooled to create “combinatory” tools that both innovate new solutions and save us time. If you have the chance, watch the whole original video—it’s only a little over 15 minutes and, I think, well worth it.

There are certainly some strong connections between Ridley’s and Davidson’s arguments—connections that are particularly clear if you watch the longer version of Ridley’s talk. They are both convinced that differences in human ideas can interact and combine to create something much more powerful and interesting than can be produced by an individual.

But rewatching this video after reading Now You See It, I was reminded that simply emphasizing and celebrating difference does not guarantee the shift in our attention that Davidson so compelling argues is necessary for us to see new possibilities. Ridley’s (rather positive) take on the increasing specialization of human labor called my attention to the strangely fine line between difference as specialization that efficiently divides labor to maintain the status quo, and difference as a generator of productive friction that “distracts us” into seeing in new ways. That is, it seems to me that attention to difference is a double-edge sword: it can be employed in service of both complacency and innovation, depending on how it is mobilized. If we already account for difference in our thinking as specialization, our differences may be complementary and productive, technically speaking, but not innovative. Complementary division of labor for efficiency above all else is part of the industrial-age mindset that Davidson argues is now an outdated form of learning and creating. As she notes, ideally “crowdsourcing is suspicious of expertise, because the more expert we are, the more likely we are to be limited in what we even conceive to be the problem, let alone the answer” (64).

This fine line is something I am already struggling with in my classroom as a first-time writing teacher this semester. For Davidson, the usefulness of crowdsourcing/collaborative learning hinges on its ability to “jolt” us out of our normal patterns of seeing and doing by noticing the different ways that others see and do. Her discussion of classrooms that are using these attention-altering techniques extols the virtues of team-based learning. Partly due to their size, teams seem to provide an ideal environment for alternately building consensus (internally), highlighting difference (internally and externally, across groups), and forcing that sudden shift in attention toward new ways of seeing/doing (by seeing how others approach the same task).

Like many other teachers, I try to set up peer groups in my writing class to do just this. As students read and critique one another’s writing, I ask reviewers to try first understand what the writer is saying—to try to see through her eyes—before pushing back. Though before reading Davidson, I wouldn’t have put it this way, it’s my hope that this setup generates the most productive feedback for innovation by creating a two-way shift in attention: the reviewers are forced to see an idea through a new lens, and the author hears someone’s understanding of their ideas and then, perhaps, even some totally new ways of thinking about them.

What I haven’t done, however, is assign collaborative writing—and it is in large part due to my fear of falling into the old division-of-labor model of collaboration, where no one seems to learn anything from one another. But collaboration on a product seems to be central in all of the successful, innovative classrooms that Davidson discusses, and it is certainly a key feature of ‘real-life’ crowdsourcing in a digital environment. I’d love to hear from more experienced teachers about if and how you approach collaborative authorship in your own classrooms, and how you ensure that such collaboration really facilitates that elusive, radical shift in attention that opens minds and affords new possibilities.

x3- Books and Video Games as Interchangeable Vice

Davidson’s book got me thinking a great deal about how I experienced learning as a child and what it would have been like if the tables were turned.  As an elementary school student, I was “the bookworm.”  I carried at least one book on my person at all times and was caught reading Goosebumps under my desk in my first-grade math class on more than one occasion.  Eventually, the school librarians gave me a special dispensation of sorts where I was allowed to take out five or six books per week while everyone else only got to take out two.  I read to the exclusion of almost every other activity, and my teachers and parents encouraged me to read as much as I wanted.

My younger brothers, however, were a different story.  Although they were never opposed to reading, in grade school they would have much preferred to play video games.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, parents and teachers looked upon video games with skepticism, which Davidson attributes to concern stemming from the Columbine incident (147).  Much to my brothers’ constant irritation, video games were a privilege at home- you had to ask Mom’s permission to play them, and you were restricted to an hour or so of playing time.  There were no Call Of Duty-esque games in the house until about 2006, when the older of the two was about fourteen, and even after that, both boys had very restricted gaming time.  In the absence of homework or chores that needed to be done, they’d be told to go “read a book.”

Davidson asserts that “games have been considered an important tool for teaching complex principles and honing sophisticated forms of procedural thinking,” and that such activities can teach players to recognize “all parts of a problem, all possibilities for winning and for losing, [. . .] and the best set of responses (procedures) to maximize success” (146).   Science has apparently proven that they improve multitasking abilities, hand-eye coordination, teamwork, and metabolic function, (149-50).  I was not aware of any of this, to be honest.  I’ve never been a gamer, and I don’t see the attraction.   However, now that I understand a bit more of the science behind how games work, things make a bit more sense.

It makes sense now that both of my brothers are great with team work and have a more positive view of dealing with other people.  On the other hand,  I loved the isolation and pure imagination that came with books, and am typically a bit more apprehensive of working with others.  Where I love endlessly discussing strange theoretical ideas and minutia, both of my brothers enjoy and are skilled in the application and processes of creating a cohesive product.  All three of us are skilled, but in markedly different ways.  Of course, all of this begs the question:  Do games and books attract people of a certain personality type, or do they have a heavy hand in creating them?  For space’s sake, I won’t go into that.

In the above clip, from the 2006 Doctor Who episode “Tooth and Claw,” the Doctor encourages his companions– including Queen Victoria herself– to arm themselves with books and knowledge in order to defeat the werewolf-like creature that is terrorizing Torchwood Estate.  In this context,  the books are defensive mechanisms, preparing the Doctor and his companions to deal with the aggressions of a dangerous enemy.   If books were demonized even half as much as video games have been, education and childhood for children around the world would have been markedly different.  If those tables were turned and books were limited and seen as a vice because they were regarded as dangerous and violence-inducing, the Doctor, Rose Tyler, and Queen Victoria might have been in a very different sort of situation.

I was fortunate to have teachers who understood how important reading was to me, and more than one of them made a point to encourage reading, response, and analysis as a part of their curriculum.  My third grade teacher created an optional advanced reading activity group for about twelve students, in which we read different books and had our own special binders for discussion and response.  Davidson seems to agree with my opinion that reading is one of the most important ways to encourage imagination and curiosity in learners of all ages, calling the kindergarteners “the luckiest children on earth” (98).  Not only do they they have the privilege of quiet time to spend reading whatever they choose, but they have an educator who recognizes and encourages independent, self-directed learning.

On page 129, Davidson poses the concept of a year-end “boss-level challenge,” a project (or several smaller related projects) produced from the cumulative learning and particular skills of each student.  It makes so much sense that I’m astounded it hasn’t been implemented more widely in the mainstream.  Instead of testing arbitrary and generally irrelevant knowledge, such a project would give students a platform to develop useful skills like reasoning, communication, the importance of community outreach, and research.  Basically, it sounds like a masters’ thesis for kids that is almost more applicable to real-world situations than an actual master’s thesis.  Whether the project incorporates the skills and ideas they learn from books or video games, all that matters is that it would measure their useful life skills and arm them to be productive contributors to society.

I realized that I never actually got to talking about a classroom educational experience, but I will say that I wish this book had been around when I was in elementary school.  If educators had realized the apparent potential that video games have for developing skills applicable to the classroom and real life, I feel like I would have had a very different and more diversely enriching school experience.  I wouldn’t trade my love of books and the enrichment that they’ve contributed to my life for anything.  However,  Now You See It has forced me to consider the value of video games, which I have generally viewed as useless and a waste of time, and think about how learning would be different if it was books that were considered dangerous vices.

Eternal Sunshine of a Distracted Mind

I am fascinated by the attention-versus-distraction theory upon which Davidson builds the initial standpoint of her work. The idea that whatever exists and whatever does not exist in our current consciousness is a result of lifelong interactions between attentions that are marginalized by distractions and distractions that succeed in becoming attentions attracts my attention, or in other words distracts me from another attention! I would accept that my mind and my world are continuously constructed and deconstructed by two apparently opposite forces playing the leading roles of the same game. Whatever is considered to be my valuable intention today has once played the role of a deceiving distraction from an everyday life. To choose a human science as my major could be a kind of distraction when I look at it from the dominant intention of the surrounding world. However, when one spends some years inside a deliberately chosen distraction and dominates it and calls it specialization, the second level of the game shows up, when anything beyond that specialization would be estimated, or underestimated, as a distraction. This is not really a rule; this is what an educated mind accepts as a rule to get rid of the constant invasion of uncontrollable distractions that remind it of all human limitations in mastering a vast territory. Life is short, choose your path and forget about other journeys. The path is your attention, the attention is your intention, and all other journeys are distractions.

Following the current academic tendencies in the humanities, I would equalize attention with specialization, and distraction with whatever beyond that specialization. “Without focus the world is chaos” (Davidson 2) but how are we going to preserve our small order, or focus, and be satisfied with that in a world that is decentralizing everything by interconnecting infinite centers to each other. Now that in the digital world many apparent boundaries between attentions and distraction are passable by a simple click on an unrelated link and “everything links to everything and all of it is available all the time” (6) how could we draw a line around a territory and call it our field of specialization without being concerned or curious any more about anything that exists beyond that hypothetical line?

“Attention is about difference” (49) but if it is not challenged by new distractions I would call it a sign of indifference rather than a prolonged difference. I would like to go beyond the secure boundaries of conventionally defined fields that justify exclusions before inclusions. I believe in interdisciplinary approaches and interactive projects in different levels of education as the dynamic patterns of keeping balance between attentions and distractions in a world that does not draw any absolute boundaries between various subjects any more. Through interdisciplinary approaches hypothetical boundaries are pushed away and what used to be called a distraction would function as an essential component of the central attention; and that would be in harmony with the basic structure of the digital world.

To keep going through the tension of attentions and distractions,  is to dance among the illusionary boundaries of lights and shadows. I have always tried to move forward through that tension, if distractions do not entrap my attention anymore, that means  I have lost my ability of intellectual survival , and the game is over.

“No one can live at that speed!”: Bilingualism and Language “Wiring”

Cathy Davidson’s main interest in Now You See It seems to be the plasticity and adaptability of the brain in general, with a particular focus on the ways in which this natural behavior and selective attention should be reflected in the ways we learn and teach. Yet, because of my own personal experience, I was particularly intrigued by another thread that kept on coming up in her work: bilingualism.

I grew up in a bilingual English/German household, and have spoken both languages fluently since before I can remember. Since my mother (a native German speaker) worked evenings until I was well past my toddlerhood, I spent most of my waking hours with her for my first few years. At that point, I probably spoke German more naturally and fluently than I did English, despite being otherwise surrounded by English-speakers in the small central NY town my parents and I lived in. This of course quickly changed once I entered pre-school and grade school; it was then that I discovered that bilingualism—a thing that was so mundanely normal for me—was not the norm for everyone, but a source of fascination for my peers (“How do you say x in German? Do you know any bad words?”). To use Davidson’s phrasing, I suddenly saw “others treating our ways of doing things strange” (35) and realized the necessity of acknowledging and commenting on this part of myself–as well as suppressing it in the completion of my  schoolwork. My bilingualism and my cultural heritage at once became my fallback “fun fact” about myself when meeting new people (or on the first day of school/summer camp), but also sometimes resulted in people using this linguistic category as “shorthand” (34), assuming I automatically possessed other “German” traits. The double-edged sword of cultural ownership/imposed labeling is a keen one.

Like Davidson’s Little Andy, I only became aware of these “cultural scripts” (35) because of the attention paid to them by others, not so much by my family in this case, but by my learning community. As an adult, I still cannot say I can fathom NOT knowing two languages–that is still my normal–but I can more fully appreciate the complex sorts of code-switching that I am capable of. These inevitably occur in even the most everyday conversations between my parents, sister, and I (which makes conference calling an interesting listening experience for any eavesdroppers):

The Clark family communication circuit.png
The blue arrows indicate communication in German; the yellow in English. Even though all of us can speak both, each person’s choice of language depends on who they are talking to.

In reading Davidson and remembering my own experiences, I was reminded of a bit from Eddie Izzard’s 1998 filmed performance, Dress to Kill (original clip uploaded to YouTube by melinda923). In the clip in question, he mimics a quintessentially stodgy Brit complaining about the increasing imperative to speak more than one language: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed!,” Izzard’s Stodgy Brit exclaims, dismayed.

Eddie Izzard on Bilingualism (I’ve had a  bit of trouble getting this to play on TubeChop–it should be 1:51-2:12  of the original video linked above).

Of course, his tongue-in-cheek comment makes the point that many people do indeed “live at that speed” (in and outside of Europe), but that English-speakers are notoriously stubborn about doing so. Language and translation are topics that come up often in Izzard’s stand-up routines, and which obviously interest him on a broader, more serious level as well; he has even performed on tour in both French and German.  Is Izzard (though not a pedagogue himself) not right in encouraging the forging of new connections based on the acquisition and/or cultivation of a new/alternate code of communication?

Izzard’s point therefore seems well taken in relation to the ways in which bilingualism (and second language acquisition) is treated in the average American school environment—that is to say, too often with heavy-handed inefficiency and oversight, as Davidson also suggests (94). One might even extend this to the foreign language examinations required of English graduate students: in the age of readily available access to tools ranging from scholarly translations to Google Translate, how necessary is it really to have superficial reading competency (much less full fluency) in another language—or two? Many admit that the exam is somewhat outdated, and what it tests is no longer fully relevant to all in the field, but are there not ways in which it could be better made to?

In a way, these discussions of bilingualism—the rewards and challenges—seem also to align themselves with those of digital literacies: both are often perceived as skills worth cultivating, but ones we are still trying to gauge and deploy with often incongruent measures. Perhaps my ultimate question is this: can we really ever be bilingual English/digital? Can we  ever truly “live at that speed”?

Curated Reality: Directives, the Collapse of Collaboration, and Technology in School

If we all took the Invisible Gorilla experiment (1-3), and you were one of the people who saw the gorilla, you’d probably try and figure out who else saw the gorilla, detect what they have in common with you that let them see the gorilla, and find a way to say “Hey, you saw the gorilla too. What’s the deal with the gorilla?”

Since you’d been directed to count all the passes, though, you would then convene with the Basketball Counters (who, all this time, have been doing to their calculations what you’ve been doing to the gorilla) in an attempt to arrive at an accurate picture of what’s going on here. That’s the collaboration that Davidson gestures ambitiously towards in her introduction (5), it’s the framework for the book’s objectives–to examine how we might adapt our schools and workplaces to account for this human tendency to pay attention to some things and not others, and to seek new information on what they’re missing when they need to problem-solve.

But let’s suppose (in a little mental experiment) that the Invisible Gorilla experiment that no one directed the audience to count the passes—there is no clear problem to solve. Without this directive, people would watch the video with a more open filter, with the counting-inclined counting all sorts of passes in different categories, the sports-inclined watching the form of the passes, perhaps, the literature-inclined attempting to close read the scene for symbolic meaning, and a fair number of people just watching. A larger number of people, without their attention externally directed elsewhere, might see the gorilla–without telling everyone to count (as Joe deliberately neglected to do on Friday), most people see the gorilla. It’s a gorilla.

In a group large enough, without this counting directive, people might generally see the gorilla and understand the passes and the coding of the colored shirts, and talk about what it means. But this central consensus on the (now obvious) gorilla presence would still generate a series of outlier groups: people who don’t think the gorilla is important, who counted all the passes between black shirts, or white shirts, or all the passes from one color shirt to different color shirts, and so on. They form their own small groups, reinforcing each other’s beliefs.

This is basically the internet in a nutshell. There is a mass of data, to be processed by people, with no filtering directives or directive towards problem-solving. Like Baby Andy (47), it’s just spitting data at us, and we’re selecting parts, giving them value, reinforcing the reproduction of that data, and grouping up with other people to form cultures where “Dada” is a word and “Mada” is not, where the gorilla doesn’t matter but the black-shirt passes do.

Internet Opinions

Collaboration under these circumstances may or may not be as prevalent as under the “count the passes” directive, but this collaboration is fragmentary and self-reinforcing non-collaboratory (or intra-group collaboratory) activity is just as common. Team Gorilla and Team Mathematics don’t always talk. They have no reason to. This self-selecting group-identity without an impetus to collaboration creates what I call a Curated Reality (sometimes called a bubble world, or a pundit sphere, or when properly financed, a cable news network). Davidson seems particularly unconcerned about this (the book is deliberately “optimistic” [back cover] after all), but it does make me nervous. I’m usually one of those “the internet is THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED” people, but there’s no ignoring the fact that people (all of us) select data that we are already pre-inclined to find interesting, accessible or agreeable, and filter out as “crap” all that stuff which is uninteresting or contrarian, and are generally blind to these filtering activities.

What this has to do with my experiences as a student and as an instructor grows out of the fact that, like Duke, my undergrad institution distributed iPods to its incoming freshmen (in the 2006-2007 school year). The problem was, without the financial resources of Duke or the Apple branding help garnered from Duke’s large public profile, the iPods were only distributed by specific programs in specific colleges. Unlike Duke’s student population, which as Davidson indicates was directed towards education their whole lives (64), the population at my not-quite-Ivy institution was less inclined to go along with the overtly experimental program, effectively fragmenting the student population (and the school) into iPod Education Advocates (developing apps and doing work), Happy iPod Hijackers (who laughed at this heavy-handed idea that if you just dump new tech into an old classroom things will get more efficient, and just used it to listen to music), and The Humanities Students (who did not receive the technology at all, despite appealing to the administration). The collaboration that Davidson commendably notes at Duke (65) collapsed before it even formed, except for isolated, intrepid pockets of iPod Education Enthusiasts and iPod owners. Like miniature Dukes.

In the following years, whole colleges in the university abandoned the program. The programs that abandoned the iPod did so because collaboration and innovation was stifled–ironically, stifled because these programs had implemented free iPods in an unequal fashion and hoped that crowdsourcing without directives would somehow magically collaborate them straight into the information age. iPod education became a Curated Reality–those who had it said it worked, those who had given up on it said it was worthwhile but not exemplary, and those who never had it scoffed at the idea that technology had anything new to offer, and none of these groups was really interested in talking because there was no directive, no problem to solve. Collaboration became in-group only, and attention blindness became the mode of the day.

While Davidson says Duke’s program never came with a directive (62-63), it did implicitly have one. Duke distributed the technology to a student population already inclined to work outside class time on improving the university, with specifically branded partnerships with Apple, under an educational initiative undertaken by the whole university with the direction of Davidson herself (64). In essence, she did the Invisible Gorilla experiment on a room full of professional counters at a conference on counting basketball passes–a directive is implicit in the context, creating an object of, and impetus for, collaboration.

The excerpt from a Youtube video that follows, by user Gabgorilla from October 20, 2011, stands as a prime example of both an argument for technologically enhanced education, and as an example of an artifact of collapsed collaborative possibility and implicit, limiting directives, forming a Curated Reality:

In the video, the user (a student or professor, perhaps, in a digital composition course) juxtaposes the “classrooms of today” (which are filled with laptops, mostly Apples) with the “classrooms of the past” (with patriarchal paintings and warped desks) (see 00:16 to 00:19), using Dictionary.com and proprietary clip-art to make a point about technology and classrooms in a painfully artificial use of technology that students would giggle a bit at. The video transitions from talking about technology in education generally to focusing implicitly on composition, challenging the notion that technology can only be used for “word processing” (01:48 to 01:50) while it fails to cite any uses that are not composition-oriented. The end result is commendable, but fails to reach outward beyond its implicit focus on composition technologies, proposing to enable a collaboration it implicitly fails to imagine. The video’s author challenges us to use technology in new ways, which in the video seems to mean making essays with more expensive software than a word processor.

This video gets caught up (as Davidson does, a bit) in the rhetoric of technology as panacea for education–a Curated Reality based on enthusiasm for technology and education whose laudable enthusiasm frequently erases the dangers of technology inequality and of shoehorning technology into a classroom without regard for its actual pedagogical usefulness or the ways in which technology has already impacted the classroom. Technology, despite everything said, insistently remains a replacement for or enhancement of older technology, and paying attention to it at all is grounds for self-congratulation (see all of Davidson, Chapter 3). Likewise, it remains bound up in an implicit economic language where the cost of these technologies, and their accessibility, is ignored. iPods are used to record and distribute spoken lectures to other iPod users (Davidson 66), and Duke (and Davidson) congratulate themselves on crowdsourcing new ways to use technology to make education accessible to everyone (with the several hundred dollars necessary to purchase an iPod in 2006).

Selective attention to one aspect of educational technology by a specialized group of educators with a specialized group of students (Davidson’s Duke and it’s implicitly elite student body) with the directive (implicit or otherwise–it was certainly obvious to Duke students) of modernizing educational practices creates a small group which can collaborate but collapses the possibility of collaboration outside that context–no one cites the problem of unequal implementation, or of the social forces built into educational systems which disqualify certain approaches (and which contaminated Davidson’s experimental control of not telling students what to do). Davidson, pointedly, recognizes this skewed basis but continues to universalize her experience at Duke anyway (64). She claims there are no directives or conditions–but directives were built in everywhere. Likewise, at my undergraduate institution, the unequal implementation of the initiative put further directives in the mix, rapidly enabling very specific kinds of collaboration and utterly destroying any other kind.

My much-belabored point is this: Much like the video’s limited embrace of technology, Davidson’s ideas of where this technology goes in Chapter 3 perpetuates some of the problems she wants to fight: it disables the awareness of attention blindness and collaboration that she champions. As many education technology enthusiasts (like me, and Davidson, and others) have done, we have challenged the conditions of an old, conservatively anti-technology Curated Reality on education and, in the process, perpetuated our own Curated Reality, blind to our structural preconceptions. We have enabled some forms of collaboration by disabling others, blind to our own implicit directives while claiming to be “open.” Our utopia is smaller than we imagined, because membership and collaborative knowledge is governed by criteria we pretend aren’t there.

Somebody Should Totally Just Stab the Research Paper!

Because of my own lack of digital proficiency, I don’t have my students complete any kind of digital writing projects. The closest thing to a “digital essay” that I assign them is the material culture multimedia project that serves as their last assignment of the semester. Now, I don’t mandate that they use digital media to transform their written narratives, but I’ve found that the students who opt to create original videos are almost always the most impressive.

Their “capstone” research papers, however, rarely are.

Which brings me to the moment in Cathy Davidson’s text where she discusses the term paper as a persistently problematic genre, especially when comparing it to digital writing: She claims that her students’ “writing online, at least in their blogs, was incomparably better than in the traditional term papers they wrote for the class. In fact, given all the tripe one hears from pundits about how the Internet dumbs our kids down, I was shocked that elegant bloggers often turned out to be the clunkiest and most pretentious of research paper writers. Term papers rolled in that were shot through with jargon, stilted diction, poor word choice, rambling thoughts, and even pretentious grammatical errors” (101).

Substitute “digital essayists” (which I’m using pretty loosely here) for “elegant bloggers,” and it’s almost as if Cathy Davidson is narrating my own difficulties with the research papers that I have to force myself to read through each semester in Critical Reading and Writing. And The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing—the text that we are “required” to use in E110 as beginning instructors—even has a term for all of that unbearable “jargon, stilted diction, poor word choice” and those “rambling thoughts, and…pretentious grammatical errors.”

Engfish.

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Not even a LolCat can make Engfish charming.

Before reading Davidson’s text, as I commented for the seemingly millionth time, “What exactly are you trying to say here?” on another research paper, I found myself asking questions alarmingly similar to one she poses: “What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school—the term paper—and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” (101) I struggled to answer this question sufficiently, especially because my students’ in-class performance rarely, if ever, suffered the pitfalls of engfish: their comments were (and are) thoughtful, engaged, and always genuine (even if they were/are humorously off-base at times). So, again, what is it about a required research paper that has to be at least 2000 words that “invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledegook?” (101)

Following her realization that her “best friend” and Queen of the Plastics Regina George has been disobeying “the rules of feminism” by bossing her and the delightfully absent-minded Karen around, Gretchen channels her anger into this hysterical diatribe against Caesar, in which she assumes the perspective of a fed-up Brutus. Although statements like “Brutus is just as cute as Caesar” are clearly inflected with the jargon of a teenage girl, there is something undeniably charming about Gretchen’s passion and her juxtaposition of high school drama with historical tyranny (oh, the irony!).

And at times, I wish that my own students’ papers had even a shred of this kind of verbal passion, even if it completely undermines the kind of “academic discourse” that we are supposed to be teaching them in E110. At least then I would be able to discern their level of commitment to the jargon that infiltrates their written work.

So Davidson’s text has got me thinking: what would a research paper look like if it was done entirely through a digital medium like the blog, from topic proposal to the final Works Cited page, chronicling every stage of the research process in between? Would we be able to transfer “traditional” concepts of the research paper to the Internet without making any changes? If not, what would those changes involve? And of course, the idea of proper assessment rears its ugly head as well. But who is to say that we can’t marry traditional concepts and rubrics with the affordances of the web?

I fear I’ve presented more questions than answers in my post. Alas.

Close Listening

On the first day of the semester, I have my students play “Two Truths and a Lie” as a get-to-know-you/ice-breaker activity. Last semester, my three “facts” were that I was thirty years old, that I had a daughter, and that I didn’t read any books over the summer. Pretty much every student suspected that the third one was a lie. Sure I look young, but how could an ENGLISH teacher not read any books? Blasphemy!

All of the students that guessed the third one were, however, wrong. The correct lie was “I have a daughter” (but don’t tell my spoiled dog who thinks she’s human). Perhaps though my truth was a bit misleading. Yes, I didn’t read any books, but I didn’t listen to quite a few (the whole 5,000ish pages of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, actually).

I listened to all of these books on my iPhone, much in the way that Cathy Davidson describes Duke students circa 2003 listening to various lectures and recordings on their iPods. When describing the benefits of being able to listen to course material at their own leisure, Davidson explains how all classes “could be taped and listened to anywhere. [Students] didn’t have to go to the library or the language lab to study. [Students] could listen to assignments on the bus, at the gym, while out on a run—and everyone did” (66).

Here Davidson points to a very real benefit of being able to listen to course material on the go: the convenience. Not only do you not have to go to the library to study, you don’t have to sit down. As Davidson notes, you can go to the gym or commute, but you can also do a variety of other necessary tasks, such as grocery shopping or cleaning. Basically, you no longer have wasted time. You can make it so that you are always working.

While this is an important benefit of being able to listen to texts, it is, however, not the only benefit. Audiobooks have advantageous aspects, even if you listen to them curled up in an armchair with a cup of tea. For instance, I am a really slow reader. Like, painfully slow. But with audiobooks, my reading speed is predetermined (and much faster than it would be otherwise). My mind doesn’t wander the way that it does with traditional texts, partly because it’s like listening to someone tell you a story. I feel somewhat obligated to make sure that I’m paying close attention, lest I hurt the narrator’s feelings.

Additionally, audiobooks can add material to the text that cannot exist in a traditional print format. Watch this quick clip to see what I mean. For those of you unfamiliar with the story you just heard excerpted, it’s considered to be the first gothic novel. And even if you were unfamiliar with what that genre entails, you’d probably be able to venture a pretty good guess from that 20 second clip. The narrator’s stony voice, the hushed whisper at the end, and—perhaps most importantly for my point—the clap of thunder and rain at the end of the chapter all provide the atmosphere that is quintessential to the gothic novel. While the text of the novel does not need these added elements in order to be gothic, I nonetheless think they add something valuable to it.

Yet despite all of these benefits, audiobooks are still not considered “serious” by the academy. Davidson asserts that after the introduction of iPods, “sound suddenly had a new educational role in our text- and visuals-dominated classroom” (66). While this may have been the case at Duke in 2003, I do not think it remains so for universities as a whole. Listening to audiobooks instead of regular books is certainly not encouraged, and I’m hesitant to even admit that I do.

When I was talking about this issue the other day with someone —who is also a self-admitted audiobook fanatic—he asked me: “How do you talk in class about a book you listen to? You can’t close read it, right?” And no, you can’t close read, but you can close listen, and I, for one, think that that is just as good.