The Cynical Question

Recently I spoke at a faculty development luncheon, trying to convey the pedagogical value of student blogging as well as other openly networked student activity on the web. Things I’ve been practicing and thinking about for about twenty years now, depending on how and what you count. This time I deliberately did not go to websites or demonstrate information architectures or cite examples with screenshots or anything of the kind for at least the first half of my talk. Instead, I put up several quotations from various pedagogical thinkers, with the aim of discussing principles and values first, and at length, before I said a word about any kind of specific implementation. I wanted to share the conceptual frameworks within which I do my work and within which my students do their work in my classes. I hoped that by doing so I could put the inevitable and worthy operational questions–how do you grade this? how does it scale? what about FERPA? etc.–into a larger perspective that might keep the operational questions from being conversation stoppers, as alas they often are. In other words, if we can agree on our values and principles, and articulate what we believe to be important aspects of the learning experience as demonstrated by our own experience as well as by careful research into the complexities of learning, then we might not get stuck when it becomes obvious that the systems we’ve devised don’t support, and often actually block, the values and principles we profess. If we know what we value and why, then we can always reimagine the operational details, difficult and jarring though that will be.

I know I seem quite naive in this hope. I’m not, really. I can show you all the broken places inside me that ache very badly in certain kinds of institutional weather. I can show you places where the brokenness has limited my range of motion, metaphorically speaking. For some odd reason(s), though, I keep trying. Actually, the reasons aren’t odd at all, though I say that ruefully as I think about the next time I’ll hear that sound somewhere inside me, the sound that says that once again something has snapped or at least been chipped.

So there I was, and the moment came. I could hear it arrive. “I need to ask a cynical question,” the voice said. You need to announce that need, too, I thought. I understand. This is pretty standard for this kind of discussion, and if anything, I was surprised it had taken so long to come out. But yes, here it comes, and I’ll do my best to respect the real concerns within the cynicism while at the same time I’ll attempt to move us back toward aspiration and imagination. For of course sometimes the cynical question helps to refine the hopes and dreams, and to make them more resilient so they can actually make their way toward reality.

As the cynical question emerged, however, there was a stinger at the end that I hadn’t anticipated. Although I can’t remember the exact words, the statement was along the lines of “I don’t want to find new ways for my students to humiliate themselves.”

Obviously there’s a lot to unpack in that statement, including a concern about student vulnerability that I take very seriously. I would rather cut my own throat than to set my students up for failure. But of course that’s not what I think I’m doing when I advocate openly networked kinds of learning experiences. Quite the contrary. Along with all the usual and valuable aspects of teaching and evaluation, I add openly networked learning experiences as places where students can succeed in new and potentially liberating ways. Succeeding at what David Wiley calls, with much justice, “disposable assignments” can have real but limited value, no doubt. But succeeding at interest-driven opportunities to move in creative, unpredictable ways to connect one’s learning with classmates’ learning and with larger experiences of life? That seems valuable to me, and a worthy, even essential addition to the experience of a course of study.

But then I do not look at these things as opportunities for students to humiliate themselves. I look at them as opportunities for students to distinguish themselves by telling the story of their learning.

At the outset, my students are often surprised and even confused by the very idea that their learning is a story, one they should consider and share. This leads me to believe that the opportunity to consider and share the story of their learning is sadly absent from much of their educational experience. But there is a story there, and it is their story, and by considering and sharing that story, learners will perhaps begin to value and own their learning with more depth and intensity rather than seek the next set of credit hours that will fit their schedule, though I know that matters, too. They can see themselves, in the company of their fellow learners, writing themselves into ampler being.

And as they write, my students distinguish themselves. Paradoxically, as they become more fully individuated, they also become more communally aware, too. At its best, the openly networked activity gives them the opportunity to be fans, even connoisseurs, of each other’s voices and insights. They can come to know that a classroom, like a brain or a heart, can be much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Ironically, that realization can take hold more readily and more effectively through the openly networked activity, for here at last they see what John Dewey observed long ago: education is not preparation for life but the very process of life itself. The openly networked aspects of learning are like a lucky coin in one’s pocket, an amulet almost, reminding us that a stuffy room with bad fluorescent lighting and uncomfortable chairs is also, potentially, a portal or a threshold or a liminal space. It’s also quizzes and syllabi and exams and papers, all of which matter too. But it cannot only be those things.

This extra space, this singularity we carry in our pockets and backpacks and find like a bookmark or a marginal note among all the things we read and write, is not a space for humiliation, but a space for wonder and curiosity. To share those spaces with each other, in our distinctive voices, is to distinguish ourselves in a way that can, at its best, reveal to us the distinctiveness that is the birthright of each of us.

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Adventures in Annotation: Knowledge Emotion Tags

Knowledge Emotions: Confusion, Surprise, Interest, Awe

As I continue to tinker with the “cognitive disciplines” framework I’m using for my courses these days, I also tinker with what I might call the students’ performance spaces for these disciplines–that is, their opportunities to exercise and demonstrate these cognitive disciplines as part of their work in the class. For example, I’ve discovered that asking students to put a tagline in their blogsite names (blogs are for “zooming out”) seems to generate a small but noticeable increase in their engagement. That’s a qualitative judgment on my part, of course, but it reinforces my sense that naming opportunities–domains, stars, children, etc.–can be powerful occasions for personalization, expression, and emotional investment. Taglines are very piquant naming opportunities.

I’m tinkering with the annotation (“zooming in”) space as well, using Hypothes.is. Here my goal is not only to encourage close and careful reading, but to help shape an environment for consideration, for mulling things over, for thinking at a deeper and more reflective level than a kind of op-ed reaction (though that too has its uses, of course). It’s easy to get a reaction, but much harder to elicit a response. It’s harder still to encourage a spirit of still contemplation that doesn’t leap to judgment, even though judgment, in the end, can be not only warranted but essential. Before that judgment, however, a certain hospitality, a certain expansion of the bounds of consideration. A space for entertaining ideas.

So this time I’m asking students to tag their annotations with a word describing a specific quality of the passage they were annotating. I gave them a taxonomy of three possible tags:

  • Interesting
  • Puzzling
  • Insightful

At first I merely stipulated that students should use a tag, remaining silent about the possibility of combining tags. Sure enough, without any direction from me, one student started to combine tags–a very thoughtful strategy, and one true to my own experience as a reader. Then, others did as well.

I adapted the tags from Dr. Paul Silvia‘s article “Knowledge Emotions: Feelings that Foster Learning, Exploring, and Reflecting.”  (Knowledge emotions? Yes.) Using appraisal theory, Silvia identifies four such emotions: Surprise, Confusion, Interest, and Awe. For my first trials, I used the word “puzzling” instead of “confusing” to stimulate some thought about the possibility of solutions or further inquiry, as the word “confusing” is often a stopping point for students instead of the starting point it should be. I omitted “surprising” because I wanted to keep the set of tags to three, at least for starters. I’ll add it soon. I omitted “awe,” not because I don’t believe in awe or experience it myself (quite the contrary), but because I didn’t want the term to be overused or to slip into “awesome.” Instead, I added the word “insightful” as a way to extend a part of the knowledge affect into a evaluative realm, and because I’m very interested in insight.

Some students forgot to tag their annotations, but most remembered. Hypothes.is makes it easy to sort by tags, so at a glance I could see which passages had struck students as interesting, puzzling, or insightful–or some combination. Obviously this gave me opportunities for follow-up in later classes as well.

As I say, early days. Still tinkering. But I thought the idea was worth sharing, and I hope folks will build on it and help me improve.

 

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The Professional Ethos

Australian_Capital_Territory_Legislative_Assembly_and_the_statue_Ethos

By Bidgee – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5 au, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12857136

Although Open Learning ’18 has come and gone, the questions and issues linger in my mind. I continue to think about faculty development, and more widely, professional development. I wonder about the routine and damaging separation of skills and content, teaching and research, computers and pedagogy. During the thirteen years I worked in faculty development, as I worked with colleagues to foster deeper and more intellectually stimulating varieties of professional development, I saw organizational and cultural barriers of all kinds; and while I did my best to identify, address, and overcome those barriers, I feel that I failed more often than I succeeded.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to frame professional development as an ethical project–which of course leads me to think about the ethos of the contemporary university, which is not a happy thinking spot. Still, it’s interesting to think not about programs or outcomes or assessment or any of those useful but secondary things, but about ethos, and ethics. I understand that trying to identify one ethos in the contemporary multiversity is probably a fool’s errand. I wonder, though, if we can talk about ethical higher education without asking about the ethos of the university.

In this regard, I find Jerry Z. Muller’s definition of “the professional ethos” very interesting.

The professional ethos is based on mastery of a body of specialized knowledge acquired through an extended process of education and training; autonomy and control over work; an identification with one’s professional group and a sense of responsibility toward colleagues; a high valuation of intrinsic rewards; and a commitment to the interests of clients above considerations of costs….  (The Tyranny of Metrics)

Mastery. Processes that take time. Self-regulation. Responsibility. Intrinsic rewards. Commitment to the interests of clients (not mere “customers”). It’s hard to think of what professionalism might mean without these commitments. It’s hard to watch such commitments being eroded, or forgotten, or forsaken.

When I hear vapid and damaging talk about how the university is a “business” (as if there’s only one kind of business in the world, the kind focused on making as much money as possible) or about how we need to “give the students what they want, not what we think they need,” I hear a refusal of this idea of the professional ethos.

When smart and perceptive experts feel they must problematize the idea of expertise as what I can only assume is a sincere but misguided egalitarian gesture, I hear a refusal of the idea of the professional ethos. As should be clear by now, putting the word expert in scare quotes can result in a truly frightening and harmful rejection of knowledge itself. To see any part of this rejection in higher education is to see a process of self-consumption that cannot end well.

I wonder if the assumptions underlying much (not all) professional development in contemporary higher education reflect a similar erosion of the professional ethos. Expertise is not simply a quantity or something to be certified. Expertise is a practice emerging from, and reflecting, an ethos. A professional ethos.

Food for thought.

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Responsibility

I know what I know, says the almanac.
Elizabeth Bishop, “Sestina

Where does responsibility begin? Where can it end? Alasdair MacIntyre observes that we tell our stories in part to account for our actions–which is also to say, to make them intelligible to ourselves in terms of the responsibilities we accept. Of course we must also accept forgiveness, and we must also forgive ourselves. Yet there is responsibility, which in one crucial respect simply means the thing I should say something about, that thing to which I should respond.

Obliged, accountable, responsible. Yes. But also, at its root, “responsible” means “answered, offered in return.” A largely silent blog, the blog this blog has become, suggests no answers, no response, little or nothing to offer in return. Yet not to offer some response seems ungrateful, and especially ungrateful to those whose responses continue, often at great cost, to offer hope: a great gift. I know this blog is my responsibility. I have not responded as I ought. So I write these words for myself, to answer myself, to speak of my own silence–but not to excuse it.

This week, which is Holy Week for Christians, I am particularly haunted by these words from They Thought They Were Free, a book recommended by Timothy Burke, whose recommendations I take very seriously:

A man can carry only so much responsibility. If he tries to carry more, he collapses; so, to save himself from collapse, he rejects the responsibility that exceeds his capacity. There are responsibilities he must carry, in any case, and these, heavy enough under normal conditions, are intensified, even multiplied, in times of great change, be they bad times or good…. Responsible men never shirk responsibility, and so, when they must reject it, they deny it. They draw the curtain. They detach themselves altogether from the consideration of the evil they ought to, but cannot, contend with. Their denial compels their detachment. A good man–even a good American–running to catch a train on an important assignment has to pass by the beating of a dog on the street and concentrate on catching the train and, once on the train, he has to consider the assignment about which he must do something, rather than the dog-beating about which he can do nothing. If he is running fast enough, and his assignment is mortally important, he will not even notice the dog-beating when he passes it by.

Forgiveness may be at hand. In the meantime, there is Peter’s bitter weeping: a response, a measure of responsibility, a dark offering, a key still before him.

Good Friday.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.

POSTSCRIPT: And speaking of responsibility, another mea culpa: Mayer’s phrase “good American” is harshly ironic in this context. They Thought They Were Free is about Nazi Germany, and one of Mayer’s throughlines is that no one is immune to the rejection–and even more damning, the denial–of responsibility he describes here. Not even “good Americans.” And Mayer also suggests, hauntingly, that difficult calculations are inevitable, and very painful, and that wrong answers are wrong nonetheless.

I am sorry not to have made this clear in my initial post, and grateful to Stephen for his response in the comments.

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“The Moral Crisis of the University”

Michael B. Katz is a new discovery for me (h/t Roving Librarian). His scholarship on the history of public education in the U.S.is fascinating, troubling, and revelatory. I’m sure his conclusions are contested–whose aren’t?–but at times the clarity and forcefulness of his insights take my breath away.

“The Moral Crisis of the University,” reprinted in Katz’s last book, Reconstructing American Education (1987), is full of such insights. The essay doesn’t make for happy reading, but every time I read it I come away with a renewed understanding of what will be lost if  higher education centered on the life of the mind and nurtured by a strong sense of civic obligation disappears. In many cases, this has already happened. The change Katz describes in 1987 has accelerated in ways that may go beyond his worst nightmare. Along with that acceleration, of course, is a great deal of business as usual, as there always is. We look here when the real erosion is happening there. It’s hard to know where to look, even when there are no distractions–and there are always distractions.

There’s an old joke about going broke, credited to Hemingway: Q: “How did you go bankrupt?” A: “Little by little, then all at once.” During the little by little stage, people who sound various alarms risk being called cranks, or worse. And it’s true: a premature or mischievous cultivation of outrage may damage or destroy what little semblance of community may be left.

And yet, the little by little becomes greater every year. Michael Katz gives me a way to see that. With that clarity also comes hope, the hope that recognizing problems really is the first step toward addressing them, managing them, perhaps even solving them.

Here, then, for Week 7 of Open Learning ’18, my last week as hub director, is some Michael Katz for us to consider together.

[W]hat is it exactly that makes a university distinct from other social institutions? [Robert Paul] Wolff offered a compelling definition based on a conception of the ideal university as a “community of learning.” The ideal university, he argued, should be “a community of persons united by collective understandings, by common and communal goals, by bonds of reciprocal obligation, and by a flow of sentiment which makes the preservation of the community an object of desire, not merely a matter of prudence or a command of duty.” Community implies a form of social obligation governed by principles different from those operative in the marketplace and state. Laws of of supply and demand lose priority; wage-labor is not the template for all human relations; the translation of individuals into commodities is resisted. The difficult task of defining common goals or acceptable activity is neither avoided nor deflected onto bureaucracy….

For all their problems, universities and their faculties remain immensely privileged. They retain a freedom of activity and expression not permitted in any other major social institution. There are two justifications for this privilege. One is that it is an essential condition of teaching and learning. The other is that universities have become the major source of moral and social criticism in modern life. They are the major site of whatever social conscience we have left…. If the legitimacy of universities rested only on their service to the marketplace and state, internal freedom would not be an issue. But their legitimacy rests, in fact, on something else: their integrity. Like all privileges, the freedom enjoyed by universities carries correlative responsibilities. In their case it is intellectual honesty and moral courage. Modern universities are the greatest centers of intellectual power in history. Without integrity, they can become little more than supermarkets with raw power for sale. This is the tendency in the modern history of the higher learning. It is what I call the moral crisis of the university.

I firmly believe that these large questions are essential foundations for any effective change or conservation in higher education. For always some new things must be invented, some things will benefit from change, and some things must be conserved. Some core principles must remain non-negotiable. I agree with Katz: tenured faculty in higher education are the last, best hope for addressing these large questions of common goals and acceptable activities.

It may not yet be too late.

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Beautiful Study

Elaine Scarry,

Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just has long been food for the journey for me. Yesterday Scarry’s insights emerged yet again at an important moment, both for me and for my students in ENGL 325, Early Modern Literature, as we met for a second time to consider Aemilia Lanyer’s brave, complex, and intense poem Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611). Lanyer’s poem is vitally concerned with beauty, truth, and justice. They’re central topics in her retelling of Christ’s Passion, but they’re also linked on multiple levels to Lanyer’s own biography and proto-feminist arguments. I wanted my students to get a feel for how deep, complex, and important Lanyer’s thoughts on beauty are–why beauty mattered for her, and in what ways, and how those ways might be relevant to us as learners, too.

I knew Scarry would be a vital part of the context for our discussion, so I read a longish excerpt aloud to set the tone for the class. What I read was so resonant at that moment for me, too (this always happens on good teaching days), that I wanted to share it with you all. For me, Scarry’s words go deeper, and are more vital, than much or even most of what I read about “higher education” these days. I think her words are especially interesting in light of Open Pedagogy week in Open Learning ’18.  For me, open learning seeks to reveal, and by revealing stimulate, insight and love. Or, as Scarry writes, “to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education.” At its best, open learning shares and encourages the placement Scarry describes. Open pedagogy, then, leads by example.

I also think that “studying,” a neglected term in many contemporary conversations about learning, involves a version of the “staring” that Scarry celebrates below. One older sense of “study” used to mean something like that. When I was a child, my father would perceive me lost in a reverie and ask, “what are you studying?”   I hope such staring does not become lost in all the laudable “experiential real-world problem-based” approaches to learning celebrated so widely today, valuable as they certainly are. Contemplation, musing, mulling: these too are modes of active learning, no less important for the rapt stillness they inhabit.

So here’s Elaine Scarry, who begins by thinking about the way “beauty prompts copies of itself”:

This phenomenon of unceasing begetting sponsors in people like Plato, Aquinas, Dante the idea of eternity, the perpetual duplicating of a moment that never stops. But it also sponsors the idea of terrestrial plenitude and distribution, the will to make “more and more” so that there will eventually be “enough.” Although very great cultural outcomes such as the Iliad or the Mona Lisa or the idea of distribution arise out of the requirement beauty places on us to replicate, the simplest manifestation of the phenomenon is the everyday fact of staring. The first flash of the bird incites the desire to duplicate not by translating the glimpsed image into a drawing or a poem or a photograph but simply by continuing to see her five seconds, twenty-five seconds, forty-five seconds later–as long as the bird is there to be beheld. People follow the paths of migrating birds, moving strangers, and lost manuscripts, trying to keep the thing sensorily present to them. Pater tells us that Leonardo, as though half-crazed, used to follow people around the streets of Florence once he got “glimpses ot it [beauty] in the strange eyes or hair of chance people.” Sometimes he persisted until sundown. This replication in the realm of sensation can be carried out by a single perceiver across time (one person starting at a face or listening to the unceasing song of a mockingbird) or can instead entail a brief act of perception distributed across many people. When Leonardo drew a cartoon of St. Anne, for “two days a crowd of people of all qualities passed in naive excitement through the chamber where it hung.” This impulse toward a distribution across perceivers is, as both museums and postcards verify, the most common response to beauty: “Addis is full of blossoms. Wish you were here.” “The nightingale sang again last night. Come here as soon as you can.”

Beauty is sometimes disparaged on the ground that it causes a contagion of imitation, as when a legion of people begin to style themselves after a particular movie starlet, but this is just an imperfect version of a deeply beneficent momentum toward replication. Again beauty is sometimes disparaged because it gives rise to material cupidity and possessiveness; but here, too, we may come to feel we are simply encountering an imperfect instance of an otherwise positive outcome….

This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky. The arts and sciences, like Plato’s dialogues, have at their center the drive to confer greater clarity on what already has clear discernibility, as well as to confer initial clarity on what originally has none. They are a key mechanism in what Diotima called begetting and what Tocqueville called distribution. By perpetuating beauty, institutions of education help incite the will toward continual creation. Sometimes their institutional gravity and awkwardness can seem tonally out of register with beauty, which, like a small bird, has an aura of fragility, as when Simone Weil in Waiting for God writes:

The love of the beauty of the world … involves … the love of all the truly precious things that bad fortune can destroy. The truly precious things are those forming ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world, openings onto it.

But Weil’s list of precious things, openings into the world, begins not with a flight of a bird but with education: “Numbered among them are the pure and authentic achievements of arts and sciences” To misstate, or even merely understate, the relation of the universities to beauty is one kind of error that can be made. A university is among the precious things that can be destroyed.

 

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OpenLearning18: Course and Metacourse

I’ve been to plenty of doctors in my life, but one stands out, even now, because of the way he narrated the examination. Let’s say I went to him with a sore left knee. The first thing he would do was to palpate the right knee. Luckily, I didn’t interrupt him and say, “Not that knee, doc.” Instead, I waited a second, and in that space I heard him say, “Medicine teaches us to examine the healthy part first, to get a personal baseline with which to compare the diseased part.” Suddenly I learned something important about medicine in addition to learning something (as I eventually did) about how to ease the pain in my left knee. That small moment of meta made all the difference. It gave me a framework with which to understand everything from medical education to ways in which I could better monitor my own health and better practice my self-care.

I haven’t been to nearly so many attorneys in my life as I have physicians, probably because lawyers do not administer vaccinations (though they may help one negotiate immunity in certain instances–sorry, I just couldn’t resist). Nevertheless, one attorney in recent experience stands out because of a remark he made in a long-ish answer to a very short question. I simply needed a yes or no–or so I thought. When I got the somewhat longer answer, however, I realized that in fact I needed more than the yes or no I was looking for … but that realization involved waiting for the answer, thinking about it, and doing my best to grok it. When I thanked the attorney for the fuller answer, he replied that he typically declined to give yes or no answers even to simple questions, because the fuller context not only helped the client to understand the answer but also helped the client understand his, the attorney’s, reasoning. (It probably didn’t hurt that this attorney had a B.A. in philosophy from Berkeley, either.)

You can probably see where I’m going with these stories in relation to Open Learning ’18. It is true that the course is arranged topically, with single aspects or subsets of “open” discussed most weeks during the cMOOC. Nothing wrong with that, certainly. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with folks parachuting in for the one week they’re most interested in. But the best part of the course, and one we focus on this week as our introduction, is the opportunity to consider “all the opens, connected.” This bigger picture, this meta-view, is where information becomes knowledge–and where our shared learning experience may also foster wisdom.

Ideally, we’ll emerge with a few powerful conceptual frameworks that help us make sense not only of “all the opens” out there right now, but all the opens that may emerge as we continue to experience the uncanny, sometimes liberatory, sometimes frightening aspects of the global, light-speed telecommunications network we call the Internet. That sense-making can then be fed back into the network in a truly virtuous cycle–a virtuous cycle that’s part of the optimism and energy within Open Learning ’17, Open Learning ’18, and beyond.

I hope this first week helps to make visible the crucial importance of this meta-perspective. We’ll touch on this meta-perspective throughout Open Learning ’18. And we’ll revisit it, full-on, when we get to the final week’s topic of Open Faculty Development.

Bonus for those who read to the end: a primary inspiration for this post is “The Why of Cooking,” an article that appeared last year in The Atlantic. In this wonderful essay I also learned of the extraordinary metacookbook called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. In both cases, the analogies with Open Learning ’18 were irresistble, and yummy. For example, from “The Why of Cooking”:

I was … surprised, after roughly a year of searching, to find that there are very few books that concisely articulate the concepts that underlie good cooking, in a way that neither patronizes nor overwhelms. One might call what I was looking for “a metacookbook”—a book not about a certain cuisine or style of cooking, but about cooking itself—and I found good ones to be surprisingly rare.

So welcome to Open Learning ’18, course and metacourse, cMOOC and meta-cMOOC. And welcome to the feast!

Cooking Class

Photo by Patrick Mueller CC-BY 2.0

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In Memoriam: Diane Kelsey McColley

L-R: me, Roy Flanagan, Wendy Furman-Adams, Diane McColley, and Rich DuRocher. Both Diane and Rich have left us for now. The photo is likely from 1999 or 2001, taken at the Conference on John Milton at Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Dr. Diane Kelsey McColley, the scholar who saved my life, the colleague who encouraged my work, the friend whom I loved and will always love, has passed away.

Today Diane lives within a light I cannot imagine, but one I hope to see with her, side by side again, one bright morning.

Once more I share the words I wrote and spoke in Diane’s honor many years ago, when she became an Honored Scholar of the Milton Society of America. But how could I honor Diane, when the privilege of praising her at this extraordinary occasion was so overwhelming?

I will write about Milton today. As always, Diane’s prose will be my aspiration, as her poetic and musical soul will be my inspiration.

There is more to say, but for now this will have to do.


An Encomium for Diane McColley
Honored Scholar of the Milton Society of America
Delivered by Gardner Campbell to the Society at its Annual Meeting
Chicago, Illinois, December 28, 1999

Loving in truth, and fain in this encomium my love to show, I asked the Muse for assistance. The first answer I received was the one I expected: “Fool, look in thy heart and write.” Alas! As do all of you in this room, I recognized the layers of irony within that statement and could not take it as a simple directive.

So I applied to the Muse for another answer. And this time I heard, “work out your encomium with fear and trembling.” This command was apt but not helpful. Fear and trembling I could manage on my own.

I decided on a sterner approach. I reminded the Muse that she was not talking to an utter yokel, and that I knew something of her history and the efforts of my fellow supplicants. I asked again for her help. This time she drew near, knowing full well what I lacked, took my hand, and said, “There is in McColley a sweetness ready penned. Copy out only that, and save expense.”

So I did sit and write.

In her life, Professor Diane Kelsey McColley has planted and tended many gardens: as wife, as mother of six children-four of whom are with us tonight-and now as a grandmother, as musician and poet, as friend and mentor, as teacher and colleague. Her service to her students, to Rutgers University, and to her profession has been generous and multiform, including the Presidency of this Society. But tonight we focus our particular attention and esteem on her career as a distinguished scholar, one whose work has, for nearly thirty years, sought to train our ears to hear the music of the spheres, and our minds to grasp the essential concinnity of the created universe.

She claims as our common human inheritance the power to return to a state of what she calls “Edenic imagination, consciousness, and conscience, a kind of thought and language that is not only linear, binary, dialectical, or vertical/horizontal, but also radiant, global, multispherical, synchronic….” Mark the characteristic note of inclusiveness in her words: instead of “not this, but that” she writes “not only, but also.” For Diane McColley participates with grace and élan in both discursive and intuitive intellection, and thus unites the excellences of both ratiocination and poetry.

Of her many published works on Milton, Herbert, Shakespeare, Donne, and in Renaissance studies generally, several of which are listed in your program, some flowerings must be singled out for special praise. Her first book, Milton’s Eve, immediately effected a fundamental shift in the critical conversation. As an art historian lovingly restores a Vermeer, McColley cleaned the misogynist grime and critical varnish from Milton’s image of Eve. She restored to us a speaking portrait of the woman for whose sake Adam argued with God and angels, the woman whose selfhood both Adam and Raphael experienced as sublime, the woman whom Milton believed the artful, faithful mother of us all. After Milton’s Eve, never again would Milton’s song sound the same-and to do that to us was why Diane McColley came.

Then in A Gust far Paradise: Milton’s Eden and the Visual Arts, which won the 1993 Hanford Award, Diane McColley revealed that, with no middle flight, she intended to map Edenic consciousness not only through poetry but also through the visual and musical arts. In his review of this book for Milton Quarterly, a deeply impressed William Kerrigan called the roll of “the critics who make a difference,” who “have taught us their minds … and taught us, as it were, to think in their minds.” At the end of a list including Saurat, Hanford, Tillyard, Le Comte, Barker, Lewalski, Fish, Tayler, Lieb, and Bloom, Kerrigan wrote-prophetically, given tonight’s occasion-that “to this list we can now add McColley, a distinct consciousness shaped by the poetic invitations of Paradise Lost.”

But half yet remained unsung, and in her next book, Poetry and Music in Seventeenth Century England, the arts of explication, prosodic analysis, scrupulous historical research, and musicology form a new song of pure concent, one in which the lightest touch on what C. S. Lewis called “the Paradisal Stop” in us might resonate long after it has sounded. Early in the book, for example, McColley observes of Renaissance music that “much word-painting crosses the line, if there is one, between mimetic and rhetorical metaphor.” Plunging immediately back into her musical exegesis, McColley leaves us to ponder that “if,” to wonder about the nature of language and its relationship to being-in short, to open our imaginations to the very connectedness that resounds throughout her book. And she achieves such effects here with the verbal equivalent of a grace note. Such is the copious matter of her song.

And that song continues. One critic has said that “in the strength with which she inhabits the imaginative position of Eve, McColley has no peer.” But we must also say, after McColley’s recent essay on “the individuality of creatures in Paradise Lost,” that she may be peerless in her angelic imagination too, so fully and perceptively does she inhabit the mind and paradisal experience of Raphael in that essay.  Her current project, part of which she is carrying out now on a Mellon Postdoctoral fellowship at the Huntington Library, is a study of the language of nature in seventeenth-century poetry and technology, and she has at least five other works in progress, one of which will analyze language and nature in both early modern and twentieth century poetry and prose.

It is customary on these occasions to offer anecdotes about life in the honoree’s classroom. I have no such anecdotes, strictly speaking, for I have never formally enrolled in a class taught by Professor McColley. Yet she has been my teacher from the day I first read her work, over a decade ago. As I got ready, to get ready, to prepare to begin my dissertation, I was increasingly haunted by Wordsworth’s complaint that, when it comes to literary criticism, “we murder to dissect.” Then one evening I turned a page and began to read “Eve and the Arts of Eden.” By the time I finished it, I was both chastened and encouraged; I knew more and knew better. On fire with my discovery, I eagerly telephoned a former student at the University of Virginia. “You must read this essay by Diane McColley,” I said.  There was a long silence on the line. Then my student replied, “What did you say her name was?” “Diane McColley,” I answered. My student laughed: “I’m rooming with one of her daughters!” And so several weeks later my wife Alice and I drove to Charlottesville to meet Diane McColley. I had just re-read Diane’s moving descriptions of prelapsarian Eden, and now talking to her I felt anew that some small corner of that Eden had been restored, a corner where one might indeed find, to quote Diane’s own words, “conversations of the most felicitous reciprocity, dense with poetic shoots.” That conversation helped keep me alive and growing during the labors that followed. I do not believe I would be in this room or this profession tonight if it were not for her.

Indeed, there is in McColley a sweetness ready penned, one to pierce the meeting soul, a sweetness whose origin may be found in this excerpt from the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “And now, my friends, all that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is lovable and of good repute, whatever is excellent and admirable-fill your thoughts with these things” (Phil. 4:8, NEB).

For all of her remarkable career, Diane Kelsey McColley has inspired us to do just that. Miraculously, her luminous prose, her abiding sense of what Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things,” and her quick-eyed apprehension of the essential connectedness of those depths have in fact made those things present to us, their inscape intact and flourishing, their instress sublimely whole.

Please join me now in applauding the works and days of the newest Honored Scholar of the Milton Society of America, Diane Kelsey McColley.

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Alasdair MacIntyre on Education

Alasdair MacIntyre in 2009

By Sean O’Connor – http://www.flickr.com/photos/seanoconnor365/3351618688/in/set-72157615114247195/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9963566

One of the summer’s great discoveries for me was the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. It’s a late discovery, but in a strange way, also just in time. A moral philosopher, i.e. a philosopher of ethics, MacIntyre has had a long and distinguished career. He’s reached a wide audience as well, writing in such a way that one need not be a specialist to understand his arguments. His writing is helping me understand some longstanding difficulties I have experienced within academic culture(s). His work also helps me think more precisely, and at greater depth, about fundamental questions regarding the character of learning within higher education. I’ve been a professor long enough to have seen many complex and often very well-intentioned ideas about how to scale up higher education, make it more accessible, make it more effective, and so forth. Student-centered education, learner-centered education, learning-centered education, learning science, student success, personalized or adaptive learning, next-generation digital learning environments, workforce preparation, analytics, rubrics, Bloom, Barr & Tagg, the varieties of open, the list goes on. Yet many basic assumptions go unquestioned or even undetected. So I’m drawn to philosophy, a discipline that should help us keep our thinking rigorous and organized, to try to work through these assumptions and identify, at the very least, what I truly believe–and what I ought to be convinced of, too.

I used to think the bedrock layer was epistemology. How do we know what we know? I still think that’s an essential question, but I now think the even more urgent question is the one raised by moral philosophy: what then must we do? and on what evidence, for what reasons, do we decide the answers to that question? In the end, epistemology and moral philosophy are thickly mingled, but the latter carries with it the dilemmas and inquiries I feel most strongly.

To give you a taste of what I’m reading, I quote below from an interview with MacIntyre conducted by a philosopher of education named Joseph Dunne, and published in The Journal of the Philosophy of Education Vol. 26, No. 1, 2002. The entire “dialogue” is well worth reading, even though it’s ultimately a little disappointing that MacIntyre won’t quite grasp all the nettles Dunne offers him. That said, MacIntyre’s clarity in this lengthy excerpt puts the matter quite cogently, and with a strong sense of the dangers present in some of the rhetorics of educational “success” that are now pervading the discussion. One might even call these rhetorics the “prosperity gospel” version of higher education, and ask how such definitions of “success” will help when the storms come–as they do, especially when we dare to hope to try to build a better world, and especially when those efforts are thwarted.

Here’s MacIntyre:

During the period of fifty or so years in which I have been a teacher, almost, but not quite always in universities, the tasks of the teacher have become ever more difficult. When I spoke about those difficulties in 1985 in my Richard Peters lecture, what I had in mind was the tension between two different sets of tasks, one imposed by the social and educational system on the teacher, the other arising from the very nature of education. What the system requires of teachers is the production of the kind of compliant manpower that the current economy needs, with the different levels of skill and kinds of skill that are required in a hierarchically ordered economy. Some few children are to become corporate executives and stockbrokers, some others lawyers and physicians, very many more will occupy the lower ranks of the service, manufacturing and farming industries, and then there will be those destined by their inadequate education to provide an adequate supply of casual unskilled labour.

These unequal outcomes are required by our social and economic order. But what education has to aim at for each and every child, if it is not to be a mockery, is both the development of those powers that enable children to become reflective and independent members of their families and political communities and the inculcation of those virtues that are needed to direct us towards the achievement of our common and individual goods.

Yet, insofar as such education is successful, it will to a remarkable extent render those who profit from it unfit to participate compliantly and successfully in the social and economic order. For they will have learned how to ask questions about the activities presented by that order which it is important–from the standpoint of that order–not to ask. What questions are these? They will be of at least three kinds. A first concerns the goods served by each particular type of activity. A good education is one in which students learn not only how to play their intended part in different kinds of complex activity by developing their skills, but also how to recognise the goods served by those activities, goods which give point and purpose to what they do.

A second set of questions will be elicited by the answers to the first set. Insofar as the activities in which they engage turn out not to serve genuine goods, and more especially not to serve the common goods of the family and the local political community, what is to be done. This is partly a political question, but it is also a question for individuals about their own work. Where can I find work to do that is both for my good and for the common good? Here it matters that in the market society of advanced modernity being successful involves going where the money is and this with a single-mindedness and a tunnel vision that makes it less and less easy to enjoy the success for which one has learned to lust. The metaphor of the rat race becomes increasingly appropriate and in Ireland the true emblem of the past decade is not the Celtic tiger, but the Celtic rat.

Being unsuccessful involves being where the money is not and teachers, although much better off than either the working or the unemployed poor, are sill a paradigm case of lack of success. But teachers have one great advantage over many other members of the workforce. Not only do they serve the common good, but even when either the bureaucratic or the economic constraints on their teaching deform it, or when their own defects as teachers prevent them from achieving what they should and can achieve, they generally have colleagues with whom they can enquire together how to remedy matters.

Yet this is not so for almost everyone else. Most people, if and when they have asked a first set of questions about the goods at stake in their activities, and a second set of questions about what is to be done, will find themselves badly in need of discussion and enquiry with others, so that their initial answers to the first two sets of questions may be tested against the best objections that can be brought against those answers. But, when they ask a third set of questions about the possibilities for such discussion and enquiry, they will find that our contemporary social order offers almost no opportunity for them. Our conditions of work are such and our institutions are such that there is very rarely any milieu within which, in the company of others, we can step back from the established ongoing order of things and raise questions about it sub specie boni.

Why is this? It is in part because of the phenomenon of social compartmentalisation, of the increasing extent to which each particular area of life is delimited, with its own norms and prescribed roles, so that the self is in danger of being liquidated into those roles, presenting one persona in the home, another in the workplace, a third at parties or in a bar, yet without anywhere to recollect who she or he is as a human being and to reflect upon what the point and purpose of the whole may be, so that one can better understand the parts….

So contemporary teachers have the task of educating their students, so that those students will bring to the activities of their adult life questioning attitudes that will put them at odds with the moral temper of the age and with its dominant institutions. Many of these students will become frustrated, many will be defeated. But some will find their own way and become, by the standards of the age, unintelligibly happy failures….

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The Role of University Faculty in an Age of Ubiquitous Personal Networked Computing

1961 mission statement, Arizona State College

On August 14, 2017 I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the Southwest Teaching and Learning Symposium, held at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. My heartfelt thanks to Don Carter for the invitation, and to Don, John Doherty, and Alexandria Lewis for all they did to make my visit smooth and greatly enjoyable.

As you’ll hear from my talk, I spent some time on familiar ground, but this time newly contextualized in ways the very long title points toward. My idea, emerging from my experience as a faculty member for twenty-seven years and as an administrator for twelve of those years, is that amidst the urgent, necessary, and largely (but not entirely) beneficial emphasis on so-called “student-centered learning,” we have not considered the role of faculty as deeply or as wisely as we should.

There are many reasons for that lack. I consider some of them in my talk. At the same time, I return to what I take to be some necessary, if inconvenient truths regarding faculty, whom I consider as the heart, the sine qua non, of a university. My point is not to demean or diminish anyone at the university who is not faculty. The intelligence, hard work, and insight of a university’s staff, and their commitment to their work for the greater good, sometimes put faculty to shame. If anything, calling attention to faculty’s central role in a university may remind us of faculty’s responsibilities for being good stewards of what is best in higher education–and, sadly, also remind us of where that stewardship is overlooked, denied, ignored, or mired in endless petty disputes.

My talk at NAU starts with faculty, then, and moves to faculty roles in a university, and enlarges that focus to bring in one of the defining characteristics of contemporary life, ubiquitous personal networked computing. Like all communicative extensions (to use McLuhan’s word), ubiquitous personal networked computing empowers some insights and obscures others. I do not believe that our age guarantees any outcome–to that extent, I am neither a technological determinist nor a techno-utopian. But I do believe, very strongly, in the human potential for good, and in communicative extensions as primary and powerful agents with which to realize and propagate that potential.

So in this talk, I try to take a comprehensive view of a key aspect of contemporary higher education, one that I don’t hear about very often (and I recognize I may not know where to listen–so help me there). I think once again about points of leverage, and places to stand where that leverage might be exercised. For it is nothing less than a world we seek to move, and I continue to believe with all my heart that education is both ground and lever for that motion.

So here’s the talk.

If you’d like to follow the slides, I’ve embedded them in a pdf below:

NAU 2017 Teaching-Learning Keynote

Note that the black slide has several slides after it. I ran over time so I didn’t get to them, but they’re important and I wanted to include them here.

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