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redefines children who have learning disabilities, that it’s not the kids, but rather the teaching techniques that are outdated and need to evolve.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”?