Usefully Useless

I have heard it said that:

“An education is that which remains after you have forgotten everything you learned in college”

This is an interesting quote considering the amount of discussion that goes on in departments about the “importance” of the classes that students are required to take.  There is a debate between the sciences and humanities.  Which will better prepare you for the “Real World” everyone is eventually headed to?  What is more useful?

Professors talk about the syllabus, tests, readings, and homework sets that make their class more effective, more useful than that other disciplines courses.  Hours and hours are spent grading these endless assignments in order to provide effective feedback to students in an attempt to facilitate learning.  Is this time well spent?  Are these the right discussions to be having?

Assuming the role of the university is to provide an education, and assuming that you, the reader, agree with the quote above the debate of Useful vs. Useless takes on new meaning.  If you still have an education after forgetting everything you ever “learned” what remains?  It can’t be the knowledge that was the topic of the useful vs. useless debate at your university.  You forgot that.

Perhaps what remains is the confidence that you can learn something.  Rector Loprieno of the University of Basel shared that while a particular course of study may be deemed Useless by outsiders or industry an individual participating often comes away having retained something Useful.

What is it that separates the Useless from the Useful?  What and who defines that which is called Useful?  And knowing that Useful things often emerge from seemingly Useless exercises how should the university respond to the Useful vs. Useless debate?

Global Perspectives: Leg 2

Zurich->Basel->Strasbourg->Basel->Riva S. Vitale->Milan->Belenzona->Lugano->Riva S. Vitale

My arrival in Zurich on the morning of May 26th marked the official beginning of the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) and my exploration of European systems of higher education.  My bike, kit, and sleeping bag were stowed safely in the basement of hotel St. Joseph.  My bags were repacked to expose the khakis, collared shirts, and dress shoes I would be needing for the next week and a half.  And after a hot shower, good deal of scrubbing, and a quick nap it became hard to tell that I had just spent a week traveling by bike through the rain in Bayern.

The program consisted of 13 participants, Justin Shanks (logistical guru), and Dean Karen DePauw (Mastermind of the program).  I was the second youngest of the team at 24 years old and one of the two master’s students represented in the group.  The majority of the team was comprised of Doctoral candidates and Post-Docs from a wide range of departments at Virginia Tech and none of us except perhaps Justin and Dean DePauw knew in full the amazing journey we were about to embark upon.   Sunday was devoted to sharing our goals, transitioning, and preparing for the pace of the program.

Over the next 11 days we traveled Switzerland, France, and Italy by train, bus, and foot in search of a more global perspective on higher education.  We learned that an international perspective is a limited viewpoint.  What we were looking for was something bigger, something more holistic, something more relevant in today’s interconnected society.  Being in such communicative proximity with all our neighbors now more than ever makes having a global perspective important as we try to make sense of the impacts our decisions will ultimately make on those around us.

Our meetings with students, staff, and Rectors from more than eight universities and intense interactions with the students from the University of Basel helped to shape these new perspectives.  The informal interactions that arose during meals, down time, and personal excursions added to the depth and power of the program as each of the participants were allowed to explore their own passions.

What I learned more than anything is that each system is unique, they each have their own focus, strengths, and weaknesses.  None of these characteristics make any one system particularly better or worse than another.  They just make them different.  They simply challenge you to examine them, without comparing, from a vantage point that is different from any you have previously stood upon.  These explorations let us—the participants of the program—return to our own system with a new set of experiences and a more holistic understanding of the global system we are all a part of.  We can then examine our own system through a newly crafted lens.  One that might allow us to more effectively adapt our own systems to the quickly changing and continuously evolving world we live in.

The expeditionary part of the program came to an end before you realized what happened and each participant trickled away from the Villa in in their own ways.  It had been a place and a space with a feeling of home.  I left with a sense of awe at what we had seen and experienced, a sense of gratitude towards those who accompanied me on that journey, and a sense of respect for each participant’s ability to teach, share, and live as a tight knit community for the time we were together.  I learned a great deal, met some amazing people, and could not have imagined a better way to spend the beginning of the summer of 2013.  Thank you.

For anyone interested a more detailed description of my journeys explore: leg 1 and leg 3.

Global Perspectives: Leg 3

Riva S. Vitale->Lugano->Lake Lugano->Zuirch->Dublin->Banbridge->Glaskar->Dublin

10:00am on Thursday June 6th marked our departure from the Villa and the beginning of leg 3.  The structured and well thought out itinerary had come to a close and I had a week to get myself to Dublin and do something interesting, exciting, and fun in between.

I took a train to Lugano with four other participants under the hopeful assumption that we might be able to rent a sailboat for the afternoon.  The morning looked cold, foggy, and not very hopeful but the crew of Kevin, Kat, Kelsey, and Angela stepped up and said they were in if it worked so off we went.  Right around noon the weather cleared, the wind picked up, and after a conversation—mostly done through hand gestures—with a man who could only speak Italian we found ourselves sailing away from Lugano towards the Italian Cliffs on the far side.  We hadn’t been asked to pay or even leave any type of collateral and without having a common language we had managed to gain the trust of the employee at the wharf.  The afternoon was great and the crew dispite their claims to have little to no sailing experience did a great job of manning our 18’ Violeto and I got to relax on the front deck.  The wind died a bit on the way back but we all managed to catch our connecting trains with a few minutes to spare.

A train to Zurich, a picnic on the banks of Lake Zurich with a thunderstorm over the alps in the distance, and an evening at the City Backpacker all followed our sailing excursion and on Friday morning I found myself doing the airport thing again with my bike to prep for a quick hop over to Dublin.  From the Airport I took a bus to Banbridge, had an adventure to find some pounds, and jumped on the bike for 15 km with only an address to guide me to 17 Glaskar rd. where I was supposed to find my sister and her friend’s relatives.

Against the odds I made it and got a good view of back roads of Northern Ireland in the process.  I was met at the door by Garrett, who laughed a bit at my appearance and then said he was expecting me and invited me in.  I was put up in the “grannie” flat and had my own bathroom.  This house which was connected to a 30,000 chicken operation and horse boarding farm was to be my home base until Tuesday.

I cleaned up helped cook the first of many wonderful meals and waited for my sister and the rest of the girls to return from their adventure to Belfast.  It was great to catch up with Marybeth and the evening was spent outside over a great meal, good wine, and a bit of “buskin” music.  The next day I did a quick 50 km ride, ate, and ate, and then went to a family gathering where we again ate and drank and ate and drank.  We danced till the sun came up and took a taxi back home where I was employed to break into the house because we had forgotten the keys.  Slumber consumed most of the next day but on Monday I got out again and did a 105 km ride that circumnavigated the Moore Mountains on the Eastern Coast.  I saw the green castle, ran through a farmer’s field when my dirt road dead ended and hit 80km/hr on a downhill between Hilltown and Rathfrieland.  I cleaned up and again we ate, drank, and danced in celebration of the wonderful time we had on the Fletcher’s Farm.  The next morning I caught a bus to Dublin with Marybeth and Shannon.

The bike ride from the airport into Dublin was fun, not direct, and longer than expected but I got there eventually and settled into the hostel Killian for two nights.  Night one was spent at a “Steeple Session” Listening to Mark Hayes and a Celtic Singer perform in a Unitarian Church.  Night two was spent listing to a traditional Irish jam session at the Cobblestone pub away from the touristy part of town.  At one point there were 4 fiddles, 2 Irish flutes, a Lyre, two banjos, a bagpipe of somekind, and an accordion playing together.  It was great.

The trip home the next morning was relatively uneventful and when mom and dad met me in the airport I was excited to finally be home.  I am quite a few steps closer on the never ending path to gain a global perspective and all the better for the steps that I’ve taken.

-To all those who helped in any capacity along my journey.  Thank you for making it all possible.

Global Perspectives: Leg 1

Blacksburg->Poconos->NewYork->Dublin->Frankfurt->Wurzberg->Kirchberg->Augsberg->Kempton->Zurich

Before it began I drove from Blacksburg, VA to Pocono Lake, PA where over two days I gathered the necessary gear, packed and rested.  On the morning of May 20th, 2013 my bike, my gear, my father, and I loaded into the pickup truck and drove towards JFK Airport.

The traffic was mild by New York standards and I was dropped on at JFK 3.5 hrs before departure.  Laden with two Orlieb panniers, a Rack Pack, and pushing my Trek up to the check in counter caught a few peoples attention.  The man at the desk was unfamiliar with Air Lingus’ Bike Policy but before long I had secured a personal escort to see my bike through the airport. Thirty minutes later the Trek and I bid farewell at the gate to meet again in Frankfurt 28 hours later.

The plane brought me to Dublin and a quick bus and train ride turned my 8 hour layover into a meeting with my sister over a wonderful Irish breakfast in Center City Dublin.  The next flight, delayed slightly, brought me to Frankfurt where I anxiously awaited the arrival of the Trek on the oversized baggage conveyer.  She arrived and I quickly set about assembling her for the eminent and ambitious adventure.  But alas the last train to Wurzberg that evening had no bike car.

Before long we scored a bench in a quiet corner that didn’t have armrests.  It was an ideal mattress and with bike chained up and valuables under my head I settled in for the night.

The 5:00am wake up and following train ride ferried us to Wurzburg via some beautiful mountain passes and an in-transit clothing change had us ready to ride upon our 9:00am arrival.

The day was long but the riding beautiful.  I felt free and route took me through fields, woods, villages, and towns via bike paths and roads that each had their own distinct feel.  The destination emerged as Kirchberg an der Jangt around lunch time.  As a small town no one had heard of getting there with limited access to maps was a bit of a challenge.  My journey took me through high farmland that had an eerie resemblance to central Pennsylvania with the exception of the language on the road signs.

After 7 hrs in the saddle and 130 km I descended in to the Jangst valley and saw Kirchberg emerge from behind the trees.  The welcome I got filled my weary body with joy and when they showed me my bed I couldn’t contain it.  The generosity of the Holtz family was heart touching.  I showed quickly and then joined a local German family in a meal, history lesson, and tour of the area before enjoying a pint or two at the local pub.  I fell into bed that evening exhausted but with a grin on my face.  This was going to be a grand adventure.

The next morning after breakfast, again with the Holtz’s, I saddled up and headed towards Creilsheim the next large town on my route.  The plan was to ride about 100 km that day but my knees had other plans and the decision to take a short cut 30 minutes into the ride resulted in an amazing 4 hour adventure in the jangst river valley.  My bike, my gear, and me rode, walked, and carried ourselves through a combination of dirt bike paths, farmers fields, old mill words, and beautiful bridges on the Radweg an der Jangst.  A gorgeous trail but not one intended for bikes loaded down with 40 lbs of gear.

I made up for lost time by catching a train from Creilsheim to Augsberg where I moved on to the next host in an apartment on the south end of town.  Again I was greeted with enthusiasm allowed to shower and provided a free dinner.  The conversation this evening was in English but getting to know Tobi and Naira and hear their stories about studying in Germany and Brazil and their adventures as couchsurfers around the world made my excursion sound a bit more reasonable.  I slept in the next morning and then bid them farewell after being laden with snacks for the day to curb my hunger on the way to Kempton.

My knees encouraged me to take a train most of the way to Kempton and when I arrived I meet my final host at a gas station on the edge of town.  It was raining, cold, and my only correspondence with Michael had been two emails and a 30 second phone conversation.  My bike was too big for his car so he told me to follow him to his house on my bike.  We turned down a highway hung a right and then started up a hill where he quickly started to pull away from me.  My mind was wondering where we were going right about when Michael hung a right onto a dirt road that lead to a farm house on the edge of a field.  Couchsurfing for the win.

The next two days were spent with the Family Ott on their Dairy farm on the outskirts of Kempton in the Allgau region of Bayern.  I joined them for meals, got a tour of the local town and attended a barn party Friday evening that had live music and about 1000 people dancing and singing along.

A last minute decision to spend one final evening with the Ott’s proved for the best as the train ride to Zurich revealed that the previously abandoned bike route would have included snow covered descents that morning.  The rest of the trip to Zurich, by train, marked the end of the first leg of my journey.  The snow-capped foothills passing by the windows helped me begin to transition to phase two of the journey.  It was time to pack up the spandex and break out the khakis

You can check out some photos from the trip here

VTCLIS13 Final Essay

Prompt: “Write an essay that explores the question”

Question: “How should a professor evaluate student performance and accomplishment in this course of study?”

Stipulations:

  • Write Clearly
  • Write Well
  • Write in a natural, authentic, and effective manner.
  • Use three of the essays we have read this semester
    • Powerfully
    • Insightfully
    • Imaginatively
  • The words must Move
  • You must be Proud of at least some significant part of the essay
  • You must complete the essay by 5:54pm on 05/11/2013
  • Your work must be your own
  • You must indicate other sources

Essay:

“There were no answers.  It was all supposition.  It was a premise built upon a pipedream—built on wishful thinking.  He would wake up in the morning and know that it was wrong.”—Simak

But he wouldn’t forget it because…

It wouldn’t be a school—at least not the kind of school he’d ever known before.”—Simak

The teachers at this school seemed to understand that…

“THE TECHNICALITIES MATTER A LOT, BUT THE UNIFYING VISION MATTERS MORE” – Nelson

Because…

“The augmenting of human intellect remains an uncertain and even perilous activity”-Murray

Where many children can be…

“held back in their learning because they have a model of learning in which you either got it or got it wrong” – Papert

 But you can’t get it wrong because…

It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture” – Papert

So perhaps the need to give out grades which so often…

“reflect commitment level, anxiety, and willingness to focus on core emphasis”—Nelson

Is an attempt to gauge it’s effectiveness in which case the grades are more for the instructor than the student.

I didn’t come here for the grade.  And I didn’t come to Virginia Tech for the benefit of the institution, so when you have to give me one then give me what you think I earned.

What I would prefer is to have a conversation about the thoughts went or will go through your head as you quantitatively or qualitatively determine what that grade should be.

I came here for the conversation and I hope that in some capacity it continues beyond the termination of the semester

Because It is what It’s all about.

Isn’t it?

-David Henry
Final Essay
VTCLIS13
130511

Faculty: Living to Love Learning

The word faculty is described by the Oxford English dictionary as ‘The power of doing anything; a kind of ability; branch of art or science; and conferred power, authority, privilege’.  To be considered a faculty member one should have applied their power to do anything in a way that refined a specific ‘kind of ability’ and now be cognizant and respectful of the ‘Conferred power, authority, and privilege’ that come with the position and title.

Your power and authority are derived from the respect that students, other faculty, and society give to people in your position.  Your privilege is the freedom to develop the respected individual into a member of society who…

…inspires others to pursue their passions
…is an expert in their field
…loves learning with contagious ferocity
…pushes others to discover their potential
…can be a mentor to their students
…embodies what they teach and preach
…is a role model on how to live

…is willing to question how things are done in an effort to improve the very systems within which we all operate.  A Faculty Member is an individual component of a larger organization that is instrumental in preparing young people to become active and educated global citizens.  Every Faculty Member should be actively and regularly engaged in asking themselves…Are my students impacted in the way I am intending and how are those impacts helping my students develop into better global participants.

Playing Games with the Sandbox

Embed Test
http://vimeo.com/65114847

“Those who fear the games often compare them to television.  Game players almost never make this analogy.  When they try to describe the games in terms of other things, the comparison is more likely to be with sports, sex, or meditation.  Television is something you watch.  Video games are something you do, something you do to your head, a world that you enter, and, to a certain extent, they are something you ‘become’.”  – Video Games and Computer Holding power, Turkle

When we embark upon a journey into the world of a video game or any game for that matter Turkle is right in saying that these games are something that we “become”.  We live in them for a time as we explore the world and rules of play associated with our game of choice.  As we live there we begin to close ourselves off from the possibilities of other worlds.  This can happen slowly or quickly depending on the intensity of our engagement, individual agency, and awareness of the possibilities outside of the game but even the most mild exploration means that at least a few of the 86400 seconds allotted to you in a given day will be spent in that world.  There is nothing wrong with this in fact it is the nature of deciding to do something or make a commitment that you will have to give up the chance to do something else.  Full engagement in the game of the moment is perhaps even necessary but it is important to in some way remain aware to the influence of factors beyond your games set of rules and be willing to engage with those uncomfortable moments when your games rule book seems to be torn up.

’You caught the glass before it hit the floor.  You teleported it back into your hand.’
‘Look, buster,’ she said grimly, ‘quit kidding yourself.  They’re watching all the time.  They play little tricks like that.  Anything for a laugh.’
She rose, laughing at him, but there was a strangeness in her laughing.
‘You don’t give yourself a chance,’ he told her.  ‘You are so horribly afraid of being laughed at.  You’ve got to be a wise guy.’
‘Thanks for the drink’ she said.
‘But, Maxine—‘
‘Come up and see me sometime.’
‘Maxine!  Wait!’
But she was gone.
-Immigrant, Simak

You can choose to ignore these moments of discomfort.  You can choose to disengage and retreat quickly to a place of comfort but if you’re ever interested in advancing to the next game or perhaps beginning to understand the larger set of rules that govern the next level of play our readings from this semester seem to indicate that you need to revel in those uncomfortable moments.  You need to stare that discomfort in the face.

“See it for what it is-as one picks up a strange object from one’s back yard and gazes directly at it” – The loss of the Creature, Percy

You need to do your best to soak up as much information as your limited senses can gather while it lasts.

“There was no describing it, no way to describe it—you felt as well as saw it.  It was a part of you and a part of the universe and a part of everything you’d ever known or dreamed.  It seemed to thrust extensions out into un-guessed time and space and it had a sense of life and the touch of comfort and the feel of home.  Yet, when he looked again, he sensed a simplicity that did not square with his first impressions.” – Immigrant, Simak

The moments of discomfort will pass.  They need to in order for you to recover and during those periods of recovery you may find yourself realizing that the world in which you thought you lived has a new twist on it now.  You have actually become aware of a new game at a new level with a new but eerily similar set of rules.

“And what does it take to advance along the evolutionary road beyond the high tide of my own race of Earth? Not mere intelligence alone, for that is not enough” – Immigrant, Simak

Isolated intelligence is a waste.  The OED defines the word Intelligence as “The faculty of understanding” which is only useful if coupled with drive, motivation, eagerness, curiosity, passion, or some similar faculty that encourages the individual to apply their intelligence to the confusing and contradictory signs that continuously surround us all.  It is the application of intelligence in your current world that might let you uncover something.

“I may have the answer—the answer that you’re awaiting back on Earth.  But I can’t tell it to you.  It’s something that can’t be told.  It’s a thing that each one must find out for himself.  And the pity of it is that Earth is not really equipped to find it out.  It is not a lesson that is often taught on Earth” – Immigrant, Simak

Perhaps Bishop is right and self-exploration of both the internal and external nature will never result in the evolutionary leaps we can’t even dream of until we are willing to lay down in our own backyards and explore with the passion and genuine curiosity of an infant until our exploration leads us to a clue about that next level we seem to be seeking.  At that point, if we can view that clue through truly new eyes as Walker Percy tries to explain we might, just might, be able to extract a bit of the real meaning from the experience and move a bit closer to a more holistic understand of that larger game we each play from start to finish in our own unique ways.

Getting it Right

An excerpt from the introduction to Tim Berners-Lee’s The World-Wide Web in “The New Media Reader:

“The ACM Hypertext conference was probably right to reject Tim Berners-Lee’s paper about the Web in 1991, reducing the announcement of this earth-shattering system to a poster session, just as it was probably right for the technologically inferior Web to eat alive those “superior” hypertext systems talked about at the ACM Hypertext conference”

A friend and coworker who is pursuing a PhD is Mechanical Engineering made a admission to me that what shocked him the most about the conference he just attended was the fact there was lots of nodding, agreeing, and smiling from the general audiences when it was wildly apparent to those who chose to look that 95% of the participants had no idea about how to even begin following the topics that were being presented.

Before hearing this anecdote I was wondering how any panel, conference, committee, or review panel could miss something that would have as large of an impact as the Web.  After reading Tim Berners-Lee’s paper I no longer fault the judges.

How difficult is it to convey the potential of your black box to an audience and panel of biased judges who all bring their own agendas to the table?  Can you ever hope to convey the potential importance of what you have discovered under a time constraint to people whose time is limited?  It’s hard and it seems that the most effective way to tell them is to show them and simply “make” the web the “superior” hypertext system.  It makes you question the ability for the Panel of Judges to actually judge.  Is it possible for them to peer into the potential and accurately assign the awards to the deserving party or does the badge of honor in academia simply go to the student who best fit the criteria.

When you are graded for compliance with the rubric your scope is limited and you are penalized for extraneous exploration.  Can you create a rubric for real innovation?  Some are trying.  Is creating the rubric counter-productive for encouraging innovation?  Can we really quantify innovation or just the steps that have seemed to historically lead to innovation and will the next big leap follow those steps?

Tunnel Vision

Is it our vision of the future that shapes what the future becomes?

The Cell phone is common Place.  The Tricorder is underdevelopment and according some quick Google search results Scotty might (conceptually) be able to beam us up in the foreseeable future.

A great question that Bret Victor raises however is: Are we limited by these visions of the future?  He wants to know why all (current) visions of the future depict technology as reliant on “behind the glass pictures”.  Why are we having difficulty re-imagining a future communication/interaction platform that takes complete advantage of our bodies capabilities instead of limiting us to the tips of our fingers detaching our interactions from the rich feedback environment of the tactile?

Rules: the TWO Sets

This world in which we lived is governed by a set of rules.  Or perhaps more accurately two different set of rules.  The first set of rules is a set of facts that we have come to understand about the physical world in which we exist.  These are often called the Laws of Nature and they include: “Newton’s law of gravitation, his three laws of motion, the ideal gas laws, and the four laws of thermodynamics to name a few.  The second set of the rules are the ones that we have structured to govern society.  This second set of rules, I would like to believe, have been created in an attempt to help us live more harmoniously with one another.

There is a difference between the two.  The first set has been discovered, and our attempts to more deeply understand this set while occasionally transforming our understanding of how the world works ultimately bring us to a more complete image of how the universe works.  These rules are hard and un-yielding (unless we are pushing our understanding of them).  For example if don’t respect the power of a river you might try to cross a swift deep river on foot.  If you aren’t aware of foot entrapment and get snagged by an undercut rock or hole you might be quickly pushed under the surface.  The river doesn’t care who you are, what you have done, or what you plan to do.  She doesn’t care that you might have a family at home who depends on you to bring food back to the table.  You didn’t respect her power and now you are in a deadly situation that will resolve itself in minutes without some type of outside help.

The second set of rules have been created in an attempt to govern, control, direct, manage, organize, simplify, and administrate  for the convenience of all those involved in the system.  As our understanding of the world evolves our second set of laws seem to expand, intertwine, and transform into an ever more complicated set of “Laws” that are enforced by humans.  These rules can be broken by some but not by others, are enforced at times and not at others.  This is essential because our attempt to develop an inclusive set of rules is always limiting and there are exceptions.  When you but up against these laws a genuine smile and honest interest in the person across the counter may determine whether your parking ticket is enforced or waved.  Never forget that the person on the other side of the counter is just that a “person” yet they have the power in that situation.

In Simak’s “Immigrant” earth finds itself encountering another race that is just a bit ahead of us humans and a lucky few are invited to join them on their home planet where a human quickly finds their understanding of how the world works unraveling at the edges.  The Kimonians seem to have gained a much deeper understanding of the first set of rules and in doing so have been able to eliminate many of the second set, or at least on a level that people interacting with our current understanding can grasp.  In this world the human is required to live by the physical laws of nature but this time another tangible being can occasionally hold the strings on when to enforce our limited understanding of those laws and when to intervene in an attempt to maintain a more harmonious Kimonity.

It leaves a human wondering how he could gain an understanding at that level.  It could be learned, perhaps it’s a current limit on our ability to perceive.

“But it wouldn’t be a school—at least not the kind of school he’d ever known before”

“You’ll want to get up early” said the cabinet “so you aren’t late to school”