By the time I entered college, it had been over 10 years since I had read a book, and I was quite proud of myself. The last book I could remember reading was a book that had been adapted from a Disney movie about a fieldgoal-kicking donkey named Gus. To get through high school I simply skimmed. I read for key plot lines and characters – just enough to pass the pop quizzes. I might have enjoyed reading if I had tried it, but growing up in the anti-intellectual environment of a small Nebraska town, not-reading was an essential mark of being cool. A magnificent (and quintessentially cool) neuroscience professor finally brought me back to reading by assigning popular books like Jurassic Park. The moment I started reading I felt an excitement and energy like falling in love. My first visit to the library stacks had me quivering with excitement as I gazed upon the multitude of books. I had no idea there were so many. I didn’t cry at the time, but I very nearly did as I knew then that my life was taking a sharp turn. I was becoming a different person. It was an awakening, the first of many along my own learning journey.
For those of you who watched my most recent talk, Learning as soul-making, you know that I have become interested in moments of profound transformation and growth among students that I call “Learning worth crying about.” I came to this interest in the pursuit of a question that most of us professors care about, “How can I teach critical thinking?” And after realizing after some time that it is not so easily taught, I focused on how it might be learned. And after realizing it is not just an “it” to learn but a process to be practiced I focused on creating problems and projects through which it could be practiced. And then after realizing that it was not just a process but a complete change of being I started diving into the literature on student and human development and now sit buried (almost literally) in a pile of books on my desk which I voraciously read day after day trying to understand this most beautiful and complex process of how it is that we become who we are.
As a rough summary of the literature, students typically enter college with the idea that the professor and textbooks have the answers and their job is to learn those answers. They soon become frustrated with professors who pose questions. They think the professors are trying to be clever, or perhaps trying out a teaching technique. They know the professor knows the answer already, and just want to get on with it. Eventually they might realize that these questions are not simply posed, but are indeed real and controversial. But they remain firm in their idea that the answer can be found if only they can find enough information or the right theory. A significant transformation occurs when students realize that some questions are not simply posed or merely controversial, but are truly ambiguous. There is no clear right answer. Most of the big questions they worry most about most (Who am I? What am I going to do? Am I going to make it?) fall into this category, as do their sister questions that shape the arts & sciences (Who are we? What are we going to do? Are we going to make it?). This can be a hard time for students. Many will retreat by fabricating illusions that there actually are clear answers to these questions. Only a few will instead nurture an ability to sit and profit from the ambiguity, “live the questions”, and nurture a life-sustaining sense of wonder and curiosity.
At each breaking point is a sharp-turn, an awakening, and possibly a learning worth crying about. I have been interviewing students for months now and discovered some amazing stories of transformation and growth. Just this morning I stumbled across a student blog by Ephraim Hussain, who wrote about his own “learning worth crying about”:
I’m not embarrassed to admit that I cried once that class, which is the primary inspiration for this blog, came to its inevitable conclusion. I cried for so many reasons. I cried because I was lost before this class. I was lost in the sense that I was a bio major on the misguided path to medical school. Of course, when I was a high school senior, all I though about was “Hey I’m good at science and I want to help people=Bio Major and Medical School and Eventually Doctor.” My passion lay dormant, repressed by an oppressive and dictatorial school environment. I had no perspective or sense of self. High school does not afford you those privileges. It should, but it doesn’t. Instead, it leaves you on an uncertain path to nowhere. I cried because I was angry. I was angry at an educational system that continues to leave millions of kids out to dry. I was angry at an educational system that continues to put standards and test scores above the learning needs of its students. I was angry at an educational system that continues to show a blatant disregard for cognitive science. I cried, because I was immensely grateful for this one professor and this one group of students who helped me see the light in my own life. Finally, I cried because I knew that for me and for every student mired in the American educational system, that this sort of classroom experience remains one of those “few and far between”.
And what exactly happened in that class that sparked the transformation? He quotes Freire’s famous description of the “banking system” of education in which “the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat,” holding them into a learning-as-answers orientation. This class (which was a “Philosophy of Education” class) allowed Ephraim to experience a “problem posing education” in which
There was meaningful dialogue between the teacher and the students. Not only did the students learn from the teacher, but the teacher also learned from the students. There was no single recognizable authority. Rather, teacher and students engaged each other at the same level both literally and figuratively.
But stories like Ephraim’s in which a transformational “learning worth crying about” takes place in a classroom might be rare. The wonderfully insightful Women’s Ways of Knowing by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule which analyzes in-depth intimate interviews with 135 women leads one to realize that many of the most profound learning that transforms us often comes from life events and powerful relationships (good and bad).
(I have much more to write, but have to run, so three quick thoughts and a request before I sign off):
1. Although many of the great transformations of life happen outside the classroom, we have an important role to play in helping our students move toward a capacity to live the questions
2. Our lip service to “critical thinking” is really only lip service if we do not recognize that our goals do not ultimately involve a more complete transformation of the person.
3. Framing what we do in terms of soul-making and transformative learning serves as a strong counter to current discourse which tends to define college as simply job preparation.
Request: please share any “learning worth crying about” that you have experienced yourself, or that you have witnessed, helped along, or otherwise been a part of. I’m fascinated by what makes us who we are, how we change, and how education might play a role in such changes.
“An Ode to the Beauty of Existential Angst” by Vasilios Markou
Vasili is one of 11 students from Digital Ethnography 2014 who moved into the Meadowlark Hills retirement community and lived there for 4 months. Having recently experienced the ecstasy and freedom of hitch-hiking and living with almost nothing but the clothes on his back, Vasili came to Meadowlark looking to explore the meaning of death and life.
Beautifully produced by David Steiman at Pasadena City College.
“After years of experimenting with social media and praising the learning potential of these tools, Wesch realized that they don’t automatically establish either genuine empathy or meaningful bonds between professors and students. Using social media is but one of the many possible ways to connect, but the message that Wesch’s experimentation brings is that only genuine connections may restore the sense of joy and curiosity that we hope to instill in our students.”
by Jordan Thomas and Kenzie Wade, Digital Ethnography Class of 2014
This past semester, seven of the eleven students in my Digital Ethnography class moved into a continuing care retirement community full-time, while the other four visited often. After four months and 100+ hours of interviews, the students found themselves fully immersed in the lives and stories of the residents. This short compresses many lifetimes into a brief exploration of meaning and significance throughout the life cycle. I’ll post more thoughts about the semester and videos from other students soon …
In the meantime, for more background on how and why we started living in a retirement community, check out our full-length documentary from 2013, Smile Because it Happened.
The 2010 team of Diggies (Digital Ethnography students) were featured on Upworthy for their “flash mob of kindness” video to support K-State Proud. Under the title, “A Mob of College Students Attack a Girl With Cancer ant the Results are Life-Changing”, Kim Hohman of Upworthy reports:
We’ve just started the process of researching colleges in our house. After watching this video of students attacking other students at Kansas State University, it’s suddenly at the top of my list.
Watch the whole video, if you have time, but if not, here are some of the attacks-of-kindness highlights: at :32, they hand out free money; at :54, they cheer for students, just because; at 1:33, they buy someone lunch, then at 1:55, they buy someone books; they parallel park a car BY PICKING IT UP at 2:57; and at 4:06, meet the girl who had cancer, who was the recipient of a K-State Proud award.
The video picked up a quick additional 80,000 viewers since being featured on the site. And since it was recently posted by Aggieville on Facebook, I’ve been receiving several e-mails from people telling me that they hope their kids come to K-State.
Congatulations Diggies of 2010!
“Smile Because it Happened” is the latest project to come from our Digital Ethnography class (ANTH 677: Digital Ethnography Field Methods). We have become known for finding “community” where many people thought community would not exist. Until now, the communities we have studied were online. This project represents our first foray into the “real world.”
We chose the Meadowlark Hills retirement community because it is such a clear attempt to reclaim a sense of community at a time in which we are more disconnected than ever. The central hallway presents itself as the welcoming, walkable and lively small town downtown that only exists in the outside world as a shell of what it once was in the hollowed out ghosts towns of the Midwest. Based on progressive “elder-centered” living philosophies, Meadowlark represents one of the most impressive intentional community-building efforts we have yet to find in our studies – one that is all the more impressive by their own recognition that their own intentions to build community might get in the way of community itself. As we discovered during the making of this documentary, community is more like a happening to be lived, rather than a structure to be built.
For most students, this is their first exposure to video creation as well as their first exposure to real ethnographic research. But there is an unexpected freshness to the eye of the novice. Instead of doing traditional “documentary” video, we try to convey the blooming, buzzing complexity of a culture in whatever ways we can imagine. We seek to inspire empathy and a sense of connection between the audience and the subject, and all of our productions strive to achieve what we call “profound authenticity” – giving the viewer and the subject a sense of wonder about those things that otherwise seem mundane and trivial.
As readers of this blog will know, I do not like to simply “cover” the material as a teacher. I believe that much of what needs to be learned in our courses can only truly be learned through real-life practice, so I work with students each year to find an inspiring project that allows them to put their whole selves into it. In this regard, this was probably the most successful project we have ever done. Students had to face their own fears of death, they had to grieve for those they lost, and they had to overcome their insecurities to reach across a generational divide that was both wider and narrower than they had imagined.
This was also the most challenging project we have ever done. Some of those challenges are featured in the final cut, but there were others that are not so neatly processed into a video story – or into any story at all. Working with the biggest themes of the human condition often leaves us with such irresolvable issues. Those are the ones that will stay with us long after the project is over, slowly working us over and continuing to challenge us.
How do you even begin to express thanks to a group of students who gave of themselves so fully, or to the residents who gave up their time and stories, or to the staff who so graciously hosted and guided us throughout the semester? I hope the video itself might be seen as an expression of our collective gratitude for one another. When we premiered this video to over 100 residents and staff at Meadowlark last month, I told them that I felt as if I were hugging the whole room as I clicked “play.” It was such a very special experience for all of us.
A little promo produced by Kansas State University
TEDxGladstone. New media and technology present us with an overwhelming bounty of tools for connection, creativity, collaboration, and knowledge creation – a true “Age of Whatever” where anything seems possible. But any enthusiasm about these remarkable possibilities is immediately tempered by that other “Age of Whatever” – an age in which people feel increasingly disconnected, disempowered, tuned out, and alienated. Such problems are especially prevalent in education, where the Internet (which must be the most remarkable creativity and collaboration machine in the history of the world) often enters our classrooms as a distraction device. It is not enough to merely deliver information in traditional fashion to make our students “knowledgeable.” Nor is it enough to give them the skills to learn, making them “knowledge-able.” Knowledge and skills are necessary, but not sufficient. What is needed more than ever is to inspire our students to wonder, to nurture their appetite for curiosity, exploration, and contemplation, to help them attain an insatiable appetite to ask and pursue big, authentic, and relevant questions, so that they can harness and leverage the bounty of possibility all around us and rediscover the “end” or purpose of wonder, and stave off the historical end of wonder.
Turning an anthropological eye toward cyberspace, Human No More explores how conditions of the online world shape identity, place, culture, and death within virtual communities.
Online worlds have recently thrown into question the traditional anthropological conception of place-based ethnography. They break definitions, blur distinctions, and force us to rethink the notion of the “subject.” Human No More asks how digital cultures can be integrated and how the ethnography of both the “unhuman” and the “digital” could lead to possible reconfiguring the notion of the “human.”
This provocative and groundbreaking work challenges fundamental assumptions about the entire field of anthropology. Cross-disciplinary research from well-respected contributors makes this volume vital to the understanding of contemporary human interaction. It will be of interest not only to anthropologists but also to students and scholars of media, communication, popular culture, identity, and technology.
By Joe Robertson – Kansas City Star
Are we ready to quit letter grades?
Dump standardized tests?
Turn inside-out the role of schools as the authorities of knowledge?
While educators try to imagine it, students who’ve already freed themselves are galloping through the digital world.
At their best they are collaborating, creating, seeking justice, making art, defining their significance.
“Don’t we want to create students who can do that?” says Michael Wesch, a gone-viral phenomenon on the Internet who essentially launched himself digitally five years ago from the basement of his small farmhouse outside Manhattan, Kan.
He’s a 36-year-old cultural anthropologist at Kansas State University who has become the prophet of an education revolution.
They’re already out there, he says. Students and young adults who have made their mark persisting at new ideas, starting companies, connecting the world to social justice issues, fueling citizen rebellion in Egypt, distributing humanitarian aid to Haiti.
Nathalie Boucher and Martin Lamotte
An anthropological introduction to YouTube is a 40-minute YouTube video of a presentation by Michael Wesch of Kansas State University. The presentation, given at the Library of Congress in 2008, provides an overview of two years of research on the famous platform. On his Digital Ethnography website, he writes, “Our work explores how humans use media, how media uses us, and how we can use new media to reveal our insights in new ways.”
This is where Wesch’s work got our interest. We took an interest in the great work done by Michael Wesch and his team in terms of exploring how people use, discuss, interact with, and present themselves to the world through their small webcams. But we followed the “how we can use new media” thread more closely.
In his Library of Congress presentation, Wesch (at 12:16 and at 19:15) explains how his team started participant observation by broadcasting themselves. First, the research team and objectives were introduced to the vloggers (video-bloggers) in a dynamic and friendly video. Second, the students working for Wesch started their own online journals, exploring self-presentation, discussion with an imaginary audience through the webcam, and sharing ideas and personal stories in a communicative manner. Wesch and his team look very comfortable, hip, friendly, and fun. They present themselves as the guys that will be doing exactly the same thing that other vloggers do on YouTube: talking, sharing, discussing, arguing, laughing, feeling shy or angry, but above all, being a member of this online and borderless community.
We were amazed. Should anthropologists remain in their role as ethnographers observing from a dark background, or take advantage of the multimedia technology for self-presentation? This question opened many avenues of reflection, and we found some inspiration in Holaday’s Self-presentation to Majority Others – Toward Media Anthropology. This rare text was written circa 1991 and offers a reflection around self-presentation and reflexivity influenced by postmodern critics.
First of all, Wesch’s team introduction reflects his idea of what YouTube is: “new forms of expression and new forms of community and new forms of identity emerging.” The work team’s introduction is inviting and participative, and the team itself is young and communicative. The way the presentation is done bears its share of assumptions, if not preconceptions, about who is observed and what the research subject is. Don’t we introduce ourselves and project an image of our project that corresponds to the subject? This certainly shows the bias coming from the way we see our research topics, the way we are trained to practice anthropology.
It might not only be an issue of self-presentation/subject-assumption. As Holaday wrote, “The impulse to use the medium … originates from a frustration with the constraints imposed by existing channels of communication” (c. 1991: 13). The need to communicate as anthropologists implies an exchange with the “natives” during the research, and afterwards when the results are in hand. YouTube and other multimedia platforms lift the veil on the linear relationship with the audience. By audience, we mean the people that listen to and/or look at our work. More often, the audience is composed of our scientific peers. The question of the return to the participants is always difficult. How do we give back to the community we studied? Is our 500-page book, filled with theoretical concepts and complex language, going to be welcomed, read, and discussed?
Now with YouTube, at least the way Wesch and his team have used it, the audience is the people studied and the relationship is developed and maintained as the study progresses. Furthermore, their reaction to the team’s experience and involvement in YouTube is expected and followed, and may open to a back-and-forth dialogue with the researchers as the research unfolds. The audience is no longer the person in front of you and your notebook. The audience actually participates in the research. If the people we study use Internet more and more, and send videos on YouTube, we see this platform as a place to confront ideas, return research results, and established a dialogue. Wesch’s Youtube video was viewed 1,763,227 times. Is ivory tower isolation starting to be overridden?
Without any doubt, the exposure YouTube can give to ideas and recent discoveries in anthropology is tremendous. It is a way to reach out to a larger audience. Furthermore, it is a tool for communicating effectively with the people we study. It can certainly push back the limits of the participative process. It can be used as a research strategy developed to have a different exchange with the participants.
Very few other videos on anthropology, if any, aim to reach out to the “natives.” A first glance shows that many YouTube videos on anthropology aim to answer the questions, “What is anthropology?” and “What to do with a degree in anthropology?”! By using YouTube for self-presentation, Wesch presents his project as much as he participates in the definition of anthropology… that is, in a very effective and modern way (although 2008 is quite old in the Internet age). One of the comments following Wesch Anthropological introduction to YouTube posted a month ago from Cookiies4Kieran sums up this new relationship with the audience:
“I love the fact that wether [sic] we like it or not, or better put ‘wether [sic] we know it or not’, we are a part of an international, interemotional and integrating system. But who is studying everyone [sic]? That’s the beauty. We are not being studied by anyone, but we are studying ourselves. It is an amazing system of theories and use.”
Are we ready for such a turnaround?
This past week at the Educause Learning Initiatives conference I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my good friend Gardner Campbell. Every time I meet up with Gardner I am faced with a rush of epiphanies. It is as if he really were a gardener, churning up the soil of my mind, feeding it with nutrients, and sprinkling in a few nitrates which sometimes prepare a fertile ground on which new ideas grow, and other times simply explode the ground I once walked upon. This is just a bit of an excerpt from a conversation we had. (I wish I had the capacity to remember everything we discussed. Fortunately Antonio Vantaggiato recorded one of our conversations, and it should be available online soon.)
This post will not be a simple recount of the conversation, but instead a venture into my own imagination. I want to let you in on some of the explosive revelations that Gardner was creating as we talked, and give you some sense of the rich and powerful experience that this brief moment of conversation was for me.
Some years ago Gardner took a group of students to Bath in Somerset, England. For 5 weeks they faced the rush of experiencing new worlds, the kind of mix of wonder and awe that only seems possible when we are at once part of something and not quite part of it at all … More than anything, Gardner was inspired by the opportunity to see his students as complete human beings, full of their own specific insights, talents, questions, longings, worries, foibles, and all the other little things that make us all who we are that somehow seem hidden when we treat students as nothing but detached little heads processing our assignments in class. Among many highlights, they saw a piano where Elton John had once played. One of the students, a talented pianist, sat down and played Fiona Apple. Gardner started to tear up a little bit as he talked. My mind quickly filled in the blanks. I got it. This was not 5 weeks of pure bliss. It wasn’t as if everything went exactly “right”. This was 5 weeks of the rich, blooming, buzzing complexities of life … 5 weeks full of genuine meetings between these students and a new world they were only just beginning to understand and explore.
On the last night they went on top of Solsbury Hill. By this time, Gardner’s voice is cracking, and he struggles to complete the story. He says he told them the story of Solsbury Hill. Knowing Gardner, he probably could have recited the entire song of Peter Gabriel as part of that story, and that’s exactly what I imagine him doing on top of that hill. And of course I forgive him for not completing the story to me. The tears said more than words.
Just see if you can do it yourself. Put on your favorite Fiona Apple song in the background, imagine you just spent 5 of the best weeks of your life with students living in a total state of wonder as they open themselves up to the world, and then try to read the following without tearing up a bit.
Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
(I) just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
“Son,” he said “Grab your things,
I’ve come to take you home.”
To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
‘Though my life was in a rut
‘Till I thought of what I’d say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” he said “Grab your things
I’ve come to take you home.”
When illusion spins her net
I’m never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don’t need a replacement
I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” I said “You can keep my things,
they’ve come to take me home.”
I keep reading it over and over, pulling out more meaning every time.
Gardner regained his composure to conclude the story.
“So there we were on Solsbury Hill, looking down at the city where we had just spent the last five weeks. ‘That’s your life down there,’ I said. And the students just looked on with a silent, contemplative recognition. Eventually one of them spoke: ‘Normally we all just feel like we are on a conveyor belt.’”
I thought of the best 2 minutes on YouTube:
Gardner’s secret, what makes him such a great “gardener of the mind” is that he seems to be involved in an ongoing “genuine meeting” with the world and those around him. He never jumps to the final chord of the song. He invites you to play and sing along, because he is himself joyfully playing along, even when he doesn’t know where the song goes next. You can’t help but be inspired by that. You suddenly “feel part of the scenery,” and “walk right out of the machinery.” Your heart goes boom boom boom. Forget your things, you’re already home.
In short, Gardner is a great example of somebody who lives in wonder, and it is wonder that we need more than ever to inspire in our students. It starts with ourselves. If we don’t live with wonder, we will struggle to inspire it in our students. The stakes are high. Wonder allows us to see the world for what it is, and for what it might become, while also inviting us to recognize that we are its co-creators. The alternative is disengagement and alienation. Today’s world is full of seductive technologies that will magnify this difference. Those living in wonder can harness and leverage the bounty of information and tools to learn and create like never before. The rest will merely be distracted and seduced by its growing offerings of passive entertainment.
This is a quick little essay about why a teacher can employ all the “right methods” (pick your buzzword: student-centered, learning-centric, participatory, collaborative, problem-based, etc.) and embrace all the most rich, compelling, and engaging technologies, and still fail. This is an essay in the true sense of the word (which Gardner Campbell has recently reminded me is derived from the French infinitive essayer, “to try” or “to attempt”) … so this is just a try, an attempt, and in that sense also an invitation for you all to jump in and let me know your thoughts as well.
The problem of why good classes fail has become a bit of an obsession for me lately. I visit several colleges and universities every semester to talk to faculty about teaching and learning, and everywhere I go I try to sneak away for just a bit and slip into the back of an unsuspecting class just to see how things are going. This has allowed me to see a broad range of techniques and styles, and to see how students respond to them. What inspires this essay is that it is more often than not that I am disappointed by what I find. At worst, I see people feeling disengaged, disconnected, and alienated, and that’s just the professors. At best, I see rooms full of people dutifully playing the game of school, listening carefully, taking notes, etc. … which is okay as far as it goes, but I rarely see people getting lit up, inspired, excited, upset, or even a little uncomfortable (which would be a pretty good place to be for a breakthrough learning moment). The apparent levels of disinterest are astounding, especially in the face of rich content that has included everything from the capacity of ants to create eerily human-like civilizations to the promiscuous (though changing) sexual practices of teenage Trobriand Islanders. (“Really!?” I’m thinking as I sit in the back of the room, “You are not even a little bit interested in this?!” and I realize I could just as well be thinking this about the professor, who seems to be showing as little interest in the material as the students.)
To be clear, these are not all, or even mostly, straight “sage on the stage” lectures, and that’s what inspires this little essay. In fact, the few truly fantastic classes I have stumbled into were just as likely to be “sage on the stage” lectures as they were to be based on more participatory methods. And the disheartening reality has been that a really bad lecture doesn’t fail as badly as a really poorly executed participatory class. Many of these professors seem to do everything “right.” They ask their students questions, pause and let them discuss with their neighbors, show YouTube videos that relate to their own experience, and invite discussion. But disinterest and disengagement still reign. Why?
Part of the answer in some of the cases has already been implied; a disinterested professor has no chance of inspiring interest in their students. But that does not account for the more compelling failures, those that involve a clearly dedicated professor that is passionate about their material using participatory methods along with content that has been carefully crafted to be relevant and engaging for students.
So what’s wrong? In short, the common thread I see throughout all the failures is quite simply a lack of empathy. There is no authentic encounter with students, or what Martin Buber called “a genuine meeting.” When we use all the right methods, and we still fail, it is most likely because we are encountering our students as objects and not as the rich and complex individuals that they are. When we do not bring our authentic selves to the classroom and open up to an authentic encounter with our students and the topic at hand we fail, regardless of the methods we choose. “Methods” and “techniques” need to grow out of an authentic encounter with students and the material. Any focus on method and technique alone will be prone to failure. Our questions will fall flat, our lectures flatter, and break-out sections, group work and other participatory methods become just one more thing to do, seemingly without purpose or relevance.
I have become painfully aware that my own presentations are often taken as demonstrations of method and technique, and in this regard I find myself with a similar problem that psychologist Carl Rogers faced when he first started exploring the role of empathy in the therapeutic encounter. As a young therapist he discovered that simply listening to his clients and empathizing with them seemed to help them. He obtained some recording equipment and studied therapy interactions carefully. This process allowed him and his students to identify specific techniques that seemed to work. However, when these techniques were turned loose on the world and used by other therapists, these techniques became mere caricatures of what they were in the artful practice of Rogers himself. His complex empathic method became caricatured as a simple technique of “repeat the last words the client has said.” He was so dismayed by these results that he abandoned the study of empathy for some time before finally returning to it later.
So rather than focusing on emulating particular techniques and methods, we should be doing everything we can to embrace, inspire, and use our own empathy in order to better understand and relate to our students. It is only from this space that we can effectively generate and use the appropriate techniques and methods for any particular task. In this way, there is no “recipe,” “secret sauce,” or “silver bullet” for teaching effectively that can be used by anybody, anytime, anywhere. Instead, I’m proposing a “generative” method, one in which we “generate” the appropriate method that takes into consideration the broadest range of factors that we can manage to accommodate.
This is in no way a call to abandon method. Quite the contrary, it is a call to learn about as many methods and techniques as possible, and as many technologies as possible – not so you can load up your course with as many “good” ones as possible, but so that you can call forth those that might be good given the way your particular encounter with your students and work evolves.
I know there is nothing particularly new in this argument. The roots of nearly every buzzword-method I mentioned above have this “generative” idea at their heart, but too often we have forgotten that, and the method becomes a bit too methodical, the technique a bit too technical, and we lose that generative core that can continuously be re-generated through the richness of a true empathic encounter with our students.
A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working
by Jeffrey Young, The Chronicle for Higher Education
Michael Wesch has been on the lecture circuit for years touting new models of active teaching with technology. The associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University has given TED talks. Wired magazine gave him a Rave Award. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching once named him a national professor of the year. But now Mr. Wesch finds himself rethinking the fundamentals of teaching—and questioning his own advice.
The professor’s popular talks have detailed his experiments teaching with Twitter, YouTube videos, collaborative Google Docs—and they present a general critique of the chalk-and-talk lecture as outmoded. To get a sense of his teaching style, check out a video he made about one of his anthropology courses. In it, some 200 students designed their own imaginary cultures and ran a world-history simulation by sending updates via Twitter and a voice-to-text application called Jott.
To be fair, Mr. Wesch always pointed to the downsides of technology (it can be a classroom distraction, for instance). But he saw tech-infused methods as a way to upgrade teaching.
Then a frustrated colleague approached him after one of his talks: “I implemented your idea, and it just didn’t work,” Mr. Wesch was told. “The students thought it was chaos.”
It was not an isolated incident. As other professors he met described their plans to follow his example, he suspected their classes would also flop. “They would just be inspired to use blogs and Twitter and technology, but the No. 1 thing that was missing from it was a sense of purpose.”
Mr. Wesch is not swearing off technology—he still believes you can teach well with YouTube and Twitter. But at a time when using more interactive tools to replace the lecture appears to be gaining widespread acceptance, he has a new message. It doesn’t matter what method you use if you do not first focus on one intangible factor: the bond between professor and student.
Learning From an ‘Old Fogy’
Christopher Sorensen also teaches at Kansas State University, and he too has been named a national teacher of the year. But Mr. Sorensen, a physics professor, is decidedly old-school in his methods.
“You could say I’m an old fogy,” he tells me sheepishly. “I worry about that a little bit.”
He has avoided “clickers,” those remote-control-like gadgets that let students ring in answers, out of concern that they would take up too much class time and limit the amount of material he could cover. And Mr. Sorensen has a hunch that PowerPoint—which he finds valuable at professional conferences—would get in the way of his teaching. “PowerPoint takes away, I think, from a true engagement,” is how he put it.
Exactly how he connects with a roomful of students is unclear to him, but he senses that it happens. “I walk into the classroom, and I get into a fifth gear, you might say. My voice goes up and down. It’s almost like being an actor. But don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been an actor or anything.”
Even though he has been teaching for some 34 years, he still spends the morning before each class preparing—rehearsing the material in his mind. When I spoke with him one morning last week, he was reading over his notes before teaching a lesson on Copernicus for an astronomy course. “It’s sort of like running laps before you compete in a true race. You have to get warmed up,” he says.
Mr. Sorensen has heard increasing questions about whether the lecture—his preferred method—is an effective way to teach. One study he saw found that students in after-class interviews remember only 20 percent of the material. Yet he still champions the approach.
“The way I look at it is, I’ve plowed the ground,” he says. “Now they’re susceptible the next time they see the material. And you’ll give them an assignment, and that forces them to look at the material in a new way.”
As he sees it, his job is less about being an expert imparting facts and figures, and more about being a salesman convincing students that his material is worth their attention. “The messenger, ironically enough, is more important than the message,” he says. “If the messenger is excited and passionate about what they have to say, it leaves a good impression. It stimulates students to see what all this excitement is about.”
The things that make a good teacher are difficult—if not impossible—to teach, he thinks. Which is why technology may be so attractive to some teaching reformers. Blogging, Twitter, and other digital tools involve step-by-step processes that can be taught.
Meanwhile, when Mr. Sorensen recently met a job candidate who appeared warm and friendly, he felt immediately that he would be a good teacher. “I said, you seem like a good guy—you’ll make a great teacher,” he remembers saying. “Be a good guy with your students, and you’ll be a great professor.”
Searching for ‘Wonder’
As Mr. Wesch began to rethink his teaching, he visited Mr. Sorensen’s class and was impressed by how the low-tech professor connected with students: “He’s a lecturer. He’s not breaking them up into small groups or having them make videos. That’s my thing, right? But he’s totally in tune with where they are and the struggle it takes to understand physics concepts. He is right there by their side, walking them through the forest of physics.”
At its best, Mr. Wesch believes that interactive technology—and other methods to create more active experiences in the classroom—can be used to forge that kind of relationship between teachers and students where professors nurture rather than talk down to students.
In one of his courses, he teamed up with students to produce an ethnography of YouTube users. The project helped the students feel more like collaborators because the technology allowed them to immediately publish their work online.
But Mr. Wesch has also found that a high-tech method like asking students to write blogs can actually reinforce what he sees as an “authoritarian” tendency of lectures.
One example he has seen: a professor whose first comment on a student’s blog is, “Hey, great ideas here, but just so you know, there are a few typos there in your first line.” To Mr. Wesch, that sends the message that the blog is just another spot watched by the grammar police, rather than a new arena to explore. “Students can all sniff out an inauthentic place of learning,” the professor argues. “They think, If it’s a game, fine, I’ll play it for the grade, but I’m not going to learn anything.”
Technology rarely plays more than a passing role in the work of teacher-of-the-year winners, says Mary Huber, a consulting scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching who has overseen the judging process since 1991. “We see people making interesting use of technology without it being the star player,” she told me.
She said it is not too surprising that others have had trouble replicating what Mr. Wesch did. “None of this work is off-the-shelf,” she said, noting that the group promotes a “scholarly approach” to teaching. “That means you aren’t just picking something and plopping it in there, but you’re really thinking through what its value is and what you would have to do to change it.”
This semester Mr. Wesch is on sabbatical, working on a book about teaching that will sum up his latest thinking.
He is still giving talks, and the titles now all include the word “wonder.” Whatever tool professors can find to conjure that—curiosity and a sense of amazing possibilities—is what they should use, he says. Like any good lecture, his point may be more inspirational than instructive.
“Students and faculty have to have this sense that they can truly connect with each other,” he concludes. “Only through that sense of connection do you have this sense of community.”
College 2.0 covers how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or @jryoung on Twitter.
I picked up Reverend Jim Groom last night from the airport. He stopped by on his way to track down the notorious hacker @emre5807 and help us launch our new “Ed Parkour” initiative here on campus. As you may know, he now has a few Maker Bots, 3D printers for just over $1,000 that can print out just about any object you can imagine. If it’s made out of plastic (or chocolate) you can make it yourself. You don’t have to poke around very long to see why this kid loves his 3D printer:
People are already using them to print out Star Wars figurines (and mashups thereof), that will bring the old copyright conundrums of print, photo, and video to the physical object. And we’re really just at the early stages of this. There is already a $500 3D printer prototype on Kickstarter. I’m starting to realize that it is highly likely that my children will grow up in a world in which it is as common to make your toys as it is to buy them.
I *love* what I see here for the possibilities of creativity. And it has me thinking about what it will be like for my ids to grow up in such a world. It strikes me that for better or worse, a world of 3D printing may have some remarkable implications for “identity” in a society in which people define themselves by the stuff they own and display. In our society you don’t just wear skinny jeans, a v-neck, and an iPod playing Foster the People. You wear those things so that people know that you are the type of person who would wear those things. Our rooms, especially the rooms of youth, are filled with identity markers. So what happens when most of those things are made by you? What happens when we don’t leave the heavy lifting of identity craft up to the corporations and brands that currently serve as the Legos we use to build? What happens when we print our own Legos?
When I was growing up, we were all trying to “find ourselves.” It took some leap of wisdom to discover that we actually “make ourselves.” It took still a little more wisdom to get past that initial euphoria of “making ourselves” to realize that there are limits to just how much we really “make” – that the world of meanings that we draw upon is an ongoing collective creation, mostly out of the control of any one individual, and one that in our society is heavily influenced and populated by advertising, brands, and corporate agendas.
The Maker Bot seems to push the envelope a little bit here, and expand our creative potential – not just for the creation of objects, but for the creation of ourselves. And that will be both wonderful and terrifying. We already live in a world saturated with choices … the Age of Whateveran age in which whatever seems possible, where people can do, believe, and be whatever.
A world of infinite choice in which we identify with the choices we make, is a world that becomes even more fragmented as we each pursue our own interests in our own micro-cultures of meaning. Such fragmentation feeds social complexity, and a fragmented, complex world is one in which people feel increasingly overwhelmed, disengaged, and disconnected. They greet the bounty of whatever with an underwhelming “Whatever.” “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”
The world of the Maker Bot will require a new orientation to whatever … a sophisticated wisdom about who we are and how we relate to the world. The attainment of this wisdom will be the work of my children. I can’t begin to predict what the world will look like in 15 years, or what kind of wisdom it will take to thrive in it. They will have to figure that out in the fires of identity creation, and I look forward to their insights.
But whatever, I’ll take a shot at what I think it might look like.
First off, I think a world in which we can create anything ourselves will require us to embrace creativity more deeply than we have ever embraced it before. By that I mean that it will not be enough to create whatever our heart’s desire. I think we may be left with the realization that we create our heart’s desires too (at least partially, or even mostly, or at least it will appear as mostly, even to the fatalist who will just deny such appearances as an illusion).
To the extent that your heart’s desires are self-focused, you will find yourself in a vicious cycle. You will create stuff to present yourself as cool, hip, and individual. Others will do the same, and since everybody will be trying to make sure they are doing their own thing you will end up with evermore fragmentation, complexity … loss of connection, meaning, empowerment, etc. Feeling such a loss you will redouble your efforts to create your own individual identity => more fragmentation, complexity, etc.
But if you make a slight switch and orient yourself to the world, rather than to the self, a virtuous cycle emerges. The world is suddenly not full of choices with which you identify, but possibilities for play … serious play oriented toward serving the world. Fragmentation looks more like a rich diversity. Complexity becomes a rich symphony in which we all play along.
/// kids are awake, wisdom brainstorming will have to wait … feel free to join in!
As an alternative to the idea that we teach “subjects,” I’ve been playing with the idea that what we really teach are “subjectivities”: ways of approaching, understanding, and interacting with the world. Subjectivities cannot be “taught” – only practiced. They involve an introspective intellectual throw-down in the minds of students. Learning a new subjectivity is often painful because it almost always involves what psychologist Thomas Szasz referred to as “an injury to one’s self-esteem.” You have to unlearn perspectives that may have become central to your sense of self. (I wrote more about this here.)
Some of these “subjectivities” are clearly named within different disciplines. For example, in anthropology we simply call it “The Anthropological Perspective.” Sociologists have “The Sociological Imagination.” When I first considered this distinction between “subjects” and “subjectivities,” I realized that for me the content is really just a means to an end – the ultimate end being “The Anthropological Perspective.” For a long time I did not even realize this, and I constantly struggled to pile on content to make sure that I “covered the ground” necessary. It was only later that I realized that if I could inspire the proper perspective, the students would be gathering “content” to serve this powerful perspective for the rest of their lives.
So here’s my question to everybody: Within your own particular field, is there a particular “subjectivity,” perspective, or way of seeing and interacting with the world that you are trying to inspire in your students? In your mind, is this perspective more important than the “content” or “subject-matter” of the course? I would really be interested in hearing more about how this resonates or conflicts with ideas from other disciplines. If you have time, let me know what you think, and how you approach your own class.
from THE Journal
By John K. Waters
Educators play a critical role in the development of the essential skills students need to navigate the blizzard of unfiltered information available to them via the Web. Michael Wesch, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, said he believes they should also be fostering something more basic: curiosity and imagination.
“The new media landscape is a ‘pull’ environment,” Wesch said. “Nothing is pushed to you from the Web, which makes it essential that we inspire students to seek out the knowledge that’s out there. The content isn’t fundamentally different, but the environment just demands more curiosity and imagination.”
Wesch, a cultural anthropologist and researcher in the modern discipline of digital ethnography, will expand on this idea during his keynote presentation at FETC 2012, the annual education technology conference, held this year at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL, Jan. 23 to 26. This will be Wesch’s first appearance at FETC.
Wesch is a well known thought leader who burst into the public consciousness in 2007 when a video he created to launch Kansas State’s Digital Ethnography Working Group became a YouTube sensation. “The Machine is Us/ing Us” was released to the video publishing site Jan. 31 of that year. Within a month, the little video created in Wesch’s basement in St. George, KS, had been seen by more than 1.7 million people, translated into five languages, and shown to large audiences at major conferences on six continents. To date, the video has been viewed more than 11 million times in its original form and translated into more than 10 languages.
Wesch is best known as a researcher, but he’s also an active developer of innovative teaching techniques, including the semester-long World Simulation project, which is the centerpiece of Kansas State’s Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course. On his Mediated Cultures Web site, Wesch described the project as “a radical experiment in learning, created in a fit of frustration with the large lecture hall format which seems inevitable in a classroom of 200 to 400 students.”
Before turning his attention to the effects of social media and digital technology on global culture, Wesch spent two years studying the implications of writing on a remote indigenous culture in the rain forest of Papua New Guinea. Wesch found himself for the first time in a culture that was not mediated. He has described how “new media” in the form of printed census books changed the village dramatically.
“We have to recognize in our society that the new media we see in our environment are not just new means of communication, not just tools,” he told attendees at the Campus Technology 2011 conference in July. “Media change what can be said, how it can be said, who can say it, who can hear it, and what messages will count as information and knowledge.”
Wesch compared the need to “re-inspire curiosity and imagination” in students with bridging the digital divide.
“We’ve talked for years about the digital divide and how, if you’re on the wrong side of that technology access gap, you get left behind,” he said. “I think there’s the potential now for a kind of curiosity gap. Consider how much further ahead a curious student will be, compared with a student who lacks curiosity, in an environment in which he or she can reach out and grab new knowledge anytime, anywhere on all kinds of devices. If you’re a curious person, you’ll learn and grow; if you’re not, you could just drift along while others race ahead.”
Wesch is also likely to talk with FETC attendees about teaching students to become “knowledge-able,” his term for the ability to find, sort, analyze, criticize, and ultimately create new information and knowledge.
“It’s just not enough anymore to know a bunch of stuff,” he said.
Being knowledge-able, he added, is also about recognizing that, while we’re using these tools, the tools might be changing us.
“I think of all this in terms of a shift in focus away from the idea that we need to stuff students’ heads with information,” he said. “Instead, we should be concentrating on making them truly knowledge-able. Imagination and curiosity are the heart of that idea; if we have those qualities, learning becomes joyous.”