Don’t Blink – and miss this book club

I’ve decided to hijack my own new media blog for this summer and use the space to reflect as I read the book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. I’m reading as part of a “geographically diverse social media” (read: Facebook) Book Club started by an old high school “friend” (read: first love).

This book intrigues me because despite my training and career as a scientist, I make many if not most of my decisions based on intuition.  Gladwell says in the introduction that “the first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

How validating, and yet, I remain a bit skeptical, as least with respect to myself and my first impressions of others. When I first meet someone new, my immediately reactions are typically powerful, and I’d say 80-90% of the time, very positive. I become infatuated with many new acquaintances, not romantically, but I typically find myself deeply attracted to something about that person. It may be a talent, an idea, their energy, or simply the fact that we’ve been introduced by a mutual friend. I want to get to know this person better. In the workplace, I want to collaborate with this person, learn from him and her and create something together.

Needless to say, I’ve been burned – many times. I embark on projects with people I don’t know very well only to discover that many of them don’t live up to my fuller expectations. Great ideas but no stamina to carry these to fruition. Or very frequently, wonderful, friendly people in our one-on-one interactions but unable to play well with a host of others when I try to fill out the roster by bringing other colleagues into the project.

After a bit of self-psycho-analysis, I’d labeled myself naive, a poor judge of character, even gullible. I’ve been reflecting on how to become a stronger leader,  and recently vowed not to trust my first impressions, to reserve judgment until I got to know someone better, to gather more data and attend to the opinions of others who are less emotional and less intuitive than myself, before making any commitments.

I’ve made this plan to be more cautious, but it does not sit well with my gut, my intuition. And so I read Blink with hope and interest. I’m hoping that there is something valid to my first impressions. Maybe I’m not a silly Pollyanna, but am glimpsing something genuine, perhaps seeing the best of people on that first encounter and recognizing the potential of what our relationship could be.

a pilgrimage of sorts

Greetings from Silicon Valley! This is the last place I expected to find myself. I knew that I was making this trip to California, to Santa Somewhere (Santa Clara, it turns out) to talk about the SCALE-UP pedagogy to the California State University system. However, I was busy getting my talk together and tying up loose ends at work and really did not look at a map until I was flying somewhere over Colorado.

This is a quite the out-and-back trip, two days of traveling for one day of meeting, but I did have some free time this morning and got my bearings on foot. Here is what I found:

keeping my MacBook virus-free










right across the street from my hotel and WOW! do they have a nice gym for their employees

not where I'm staying, but how cool is that for a hotel?

right behind my hotel

and they let me inside!


















Intel was the best because they have a museum that depicts the history of the development of the semiconductor chip, with great stories of the people behind the inventions and an eye toward the future. I read many inspiring quotes from Robert Noyce. Here is my favorite: “Optimism is the essential ingredient for innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places?”

And guess what else I found smack in the center of this hubbub of technology and New Media? The Shrine of Our Lady of Peace.

Our Lady of Peace

This is a bona fide shrine, the kind to which people make pilgrimages. Our Lady stands 32-feet tall and is constructed from a gleaming metal. Somewhat ironically, the metal reminded me of Rearden Metal from Atlas Shrugged, and Our Lady was so magnificent, she may have made a convert of even Ayn Rand. I found Our Lady of Peace as inspiring as Robert Noyce. Here, in the middle of Silicon Valley, I found my brand of Catholicism. Not the scary Santorum variety that probably drove Illich away, and persistently threatens my own commitment to the Church, but rather, the message of peace, and the inspiration of a strong (and VERY tall) woman. What a great morning and hopefully, I can inspire people just a little bit during my workshop this afternoon.


Learning webs

This week we read “Learning Webs” from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, and I must admit, I really did not know what to make of Illich or his ideas.  Illich seemed so progressive and yet so reactionary at the same time. Deep and ‘free’ learning transcending the structure of schools and curricula were forward-thinking ideals to be sure, yet some of the suggestions for deschooling (a return to the master-apprentice model, replacing automobiles with donkeys) took the time-machine far in the other direction. As always, our New Media group helped me find more significant meaning in Illich, so much so that it will likely take several posts to work though all of the ideas swarming through my brain. Tonight I will start with a simple thought  – an expression of gratitude for my some of the more memorable members of a particular branch of my learning web.

This time of the year, I turn a greater portion of my time and creative energy to baking. I have been a baker as long as I can remember. I’ve only taken one formal course in cooking, 7th grade Home Economics with Ms. Laura Lufkin, where I learned the “rules” of cooking. Rules are not a bad thing to know in this field, especially since many rules of cooking are driven by certain laws of nature (gravity, acid-base chemistry, etc.), and  resistance really is futile when make a soufflé. However, I’d been breaking many lesser rules of cooking long before I’d learned them, and continued to do so after Home Ec.

So how did I learn to bake? Fortunately, some record of my informal education is preserved and resides in a small black box that holds dozens of 3 X 5 inch cards each filled with a recipe penned in almost calligraphic script, amazingly beautiful given most were written by women at the age of cataract eyes and arthritic hands.

“Perfect Pie Crust” was the recipe handed to me by my maternal grandmother, Edna Neily. Born Edna St. Onge, she left much of her French Canadian heritage behind to marry into the Anglo Neily clan of presumably bluer and finer blood. She learned to make Welsh rarebit, although not very well. (I still remember my dad’s protests whenever mom told him we were having dinner at her parents’ house.) Grammy never ‘unlearned’ how to bake like a French Canadian, and for me, the promise of dessert always made the bland dinners more than tolerable. The relationship between my grandparents and my parents was fraught with pain and dysfunction, and those dinners together were infrequent and strained.  I have many memories of my grandmother, but most of them buried in a safer place in my subconscious.

Yet Grammy’s pie crust was unparalled. Flaky but not dry. She kept the recipe a closely guarded secret but eventually shared it with me. I have made hundreds of pies since then and committed the recipe to memory, almost muscle memory. I’ve tweaked the recipe just a bit. I substitute 1 cup of whole wheat flour in place of some of the white flour. The result is a crust that is just as flaky but with a nutty taste, a richer golden color and some rationalization for another piece of pie.

Little did I know when I began dating Denis that our relationship would bring more than the romantic melding of two hearts into one.  A rich and mature branch was spliced into my cooking and baking learning web, and the contents of my recipe box bear the evidence. I have mentioned the Golden Girls before, Denis’ paternal grandmother, Julia, his great-aunt Josephine and their dear family friend Helen LaFlamme.  Grandma and Aunt Jo were both widowed when I met them and kept house together. Helen had never married and came over to visit and play cards almost every evening. Helen is the best baker I have ever known and will merit a later posting dedicated just to her recipes and wisdom.

For the first few years of our courtship, I was decidedly a guest in the home of the Golden Girls, although a much welcomed and pampered one. Denis and I often took the train from Boston out to Fitchburg to visit with them in Winchendon, Massachusetts, once the toy-making capital of the U.S. The ladies would serve Sunday dinner in a grand style – good china, real silver, sometimes a candelabra. Once we’d arrived and they greeted us, we were left to our own devices and speculations based on promising aromas and fragments of heated conversation that escaped from behind the closed pantry doors. (“Oh, you use flour. I always use cornstarch.”) Eventually, my role in the family evolved such that I was allowed to  help with the dishes (although not the cast iron skillet for many more years), help prepare dinner, and even cook for them. I assure you I was well supervised by three pairs of curious eyes the first few times I did that. (“SHE uses cornstarch. Did you see THAT Jo?”)

Grandma and Aunt Jo had both been nurses, around the time of World War II. They were trained by the Roman Catholic nuns who managed the operations of the hospital where they worked. Back then, nurses, and especially young nurses-in-training, did whatever they were told, from cleaning bedpans to placing IVs to cooking for the patients. Aunt Jo perfected her tapioca pudding during this training. The first time she served tapioca for dessert, I was a little disappointed. I’d eaten plenty of tapioca in my day and while it tasted ‘OK’, I generally placed it in the same treat category as Jello. Aunt Jo’s tapioca certainly transcended Jello. It tasted like a hug. Aunt Jo used the same little red box of tapioca that everyone else did. What was her secret? One day, she shared.  “Dessert was a big treat for our patients. I wanted to make something a little extra special for them…” Before she could continue, Grandma interrupted in a booming voice, “She used HEAVY CREAM, and if the Mother Superior had ever found out, she would have put her right out in the streets!” At this, Aunt Jo tilted her head back and laughed her big jolly Santa Claus laugh.

Clearly, learning through informal networks is not bounded by disciplines, approved curricula, syllabi, or learning outcomes, legal or otherwise. That day at Grandma’s house, my lesson in cooking became a broader lesson in life. Despite my near obsession with raising a healthy family during an epidemic of obesity, I realize there are days when the people I love need a hug more than flax seed. That is when I reach into the back of the refrigerator for the heavy cream.

As you might imagine, a learning web this rich in “masters” as Illich calls them, is as fragile as a spider’s web, intact and perfect early in the morning as the sun catches it speckled in dew, then shredded bit by bit throughout the day by the forces of nature. For my web, those forces were cancer.

My grandmother died while I was a postdoctoral fellow in Denver. She had survived colon cancer but not the later metastasis to her liver. Mom was by her side every day during the agonizing final weeks and made her peace with her.  Long ago, Grammy gave me one of her aprons, sleeveless floral print that snaps down the front and has two pockets. I still wear it whenever I roll dough for pies.

Aunt Jo died shortly after Denis and I moved to Blacksburg to begin our family life here.  Ovarian cancer overcame her in a fast and furious way with only months separating diagnosis and death. Her belly laughs were reduced to smiles but she never complained. Not once. Long before she took ill, Aunt Jo began passing on the tools of her trade, enormous kettles, cake pans and intricate molds that could make even Jello an elegant dessert. Aunt Jo never wrote down her recipe for tapioca. She didn’t need to. Some lessons one never forgets.

Grandma now lives with Helen in Gardner, Massachusetts. Grandma will be 100 years old in February. She and Helen still cook a little for themselves and despite our protests, always bake for us when we visit New England. For years now, at the end of each vacation, there is inevitably a moment when Grandma beckons me aside to the basement, the kitchen or her bedroom. She asks me to bring out one cardboard box or another and then she shares the contents with me, unwrapping the objects one-by-one from yellowed newspaper. Then she offers me the contents. “Would you like this?” “Do you think you could use this?” These are the tools of her trade, our trade, and she needs to place them in the proper hands. This I understand, and I always answer, “Yes, of course. Thank you.” I remember the day Denis and I were solving the puzzle of how to fit two adults, two kids and all their gear into one compact car for the 750 mile drive home when Grandma presented me with the crystal punch bowl service for 20 and the candelabra. “Not the candelabra, not now!”, I confess I was thinking. But instead, I said, “thank you” and Denis unloaded the trunk to start all over again. I understood and he did too. When Simonne turned 11 on an unseasonably warm March evening last year, I served a ‘formal’ dinner on our deck, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese served on good china, silver-plated utensils, and yes, the candelabra.

Learning webs such as these, however informal, can bear an element of the sacred. The student-teacher relationships are governed by such a deep respect for the subject and for one another, that a state of true grace descends upon the learning. I believe this is the ideal to which Mr. Illich aspires, and I hope that I can help achieve this ideal in both the formal and informal learning webs of which I am a part.

Christmas shopping

After reading Brenda Laurel this week and her comparison of human-computer interaction to theater, I was reminded of our earlier discussions of Licklider’s idea of man-computer symbiosis. Laurel discussed a theatrical performance as incomplete without the audience to make the necessary inferences. Likewise, the computer relies upon the user to fill in the gaps, bridge the less-than-perfect representations. Although computers are not sentient, humans develop relationships with them. The newest technologies can lead to dramatic changes in our behaviors, in our habits, and in our relationships with others. Perhaps that is why I worry so much about Christmas shopping this year.

My daughters are 8 and 11, and this will be the first year that the gifts all come from Mom and Dad and not from Santa. (You should probably stop reading here if you are a true believer.) The identity of the main gift giver is not all that has changed. The types of gifts my children request have given me more and more pause for concern as they have grown older. Dolls, puzzles, bicycles, books…. these were all purchased with little worry about their effect on my children. (Well, except for Barbie. Simonne and I still laugh about my feminist tirade about “not-every-woman-has-long-legs-blond-frizz-free-hair-and-big-boobs” to which she replied at the wise age of three, “Mom, it’s just a TOY.”) Barbie, aside, buying presents for my kids has always been, as it should be, fun.

Except when it comes to technology. The first request came from Simonne about three years ago when she asked for a DS. “A D-what?” Out came the child psychology books.  I conferenced with my husband. I conducted my own small study of the behavior of other people’s children who owned DS games. In the end, we bought the DS (or Santa did), she played with it, and still does from time-to-time, and life went on.

Then came the iPod touch. No need to do research there. I owned an iPod. Little did I realize that the iPod touch did far  more than play music like my iPod shuffle. Still, both kids are still passing grade school and neither has landed in juvie.

However, this year has me worried all over again. Chloe wants a mini-laptop, and in the interest of safety, we’ve decided to buy Simonne her own cell phone. I am still not certain why handing my kids new technology makes me so nervous. They are great kids, and we try our best to be good parents. We know their friends, and we pay attention to what they are doing on-line. Perhaps the unease comes with the lack of familiarity. I grew up riding bikes, reading and playing with dolls (yes, even Barbies). I didn’t use a computer until I was in college, got my first e-mail account when I was a post doc, and used the internet regularly only when I became a faculty member. My students at Tech picked out my first cell phone for me and they created my Facebook account.

I must admit that I was comforted greatly by reading Laurel’s essay and listening to her TED talk. Knowing that there are people working in the new media who are humanists and scholars, who care about the well being of children as much as about making money, gives me some peace of mind.

My kids will be fine as they enter new relationships with new technology.  Given the boxful of discarded Barbies in the playroom, all naked, several missing limbs, a few with Sharpie moustaches, I should probably worry more about the fate of the cell phone and the laptop.


This week’s New Media Seminar brought us to subjects about which I have little experience and no expertise. Once again, I was out of my comfort zone, a place that has proven to be quite stimulating for me this semester. The subject was Bill Viola, the influence of video on art, and Viola’s message that artists need to engage with this medium lest it goes the way of cable television. My first experience with cable was watching MTV at my grandmother’s house in the 1980’s, so I think I know what he means.

Both McLuhan and Viola make a passionate call to “serious artists” (McLuhan) to engage with computer and video technology, as they have become “the primary medium, not only of their own fields, but of the entire culture as well.” (Viola)

When I read Viola, I couldn’t understand (I know this is an “illegal learning outcome”, but I do know when I understand something and when I do not) how video differed so fundamentally from film. The discussion led by Ann Kilkelly and the Viola pieces that she shared helped considerably.

I see video (and I think Viola does as well) as a medium particularly suited to capturing those nearly “uncapturable” experiences or moments in time.  Viola creates these experiences through highly constructed and manipulated videos. In The Reflecting Pool, the man is caught suspended above the water, stretching out that critical, but typically immeasurably brief, period of time between decision and consequence. Most people, especially rather impulsive people like myself, do not have the opportunity to reflect upon the irreversible paths we have taken. Given ample time to do so, we might change our minds, and then the path is no longer an irreversible one. How would we respond if we could stretch out this critical period, so that we might prepare for, but not actually change, our course of action? Inevitably, the man will fall into the water, and eventually he does.

Our discussion of McLuhan and Viola also circled around the ancient question “what is art” and the logical follow-up, “who are the artists”?  Viola clearly did not view everyone as artist. I don’t think he considered the producers of music videos to be artists. I don’t know that he would see every child as an artist, the way I do. Nonetheless, I appreciate Viola as a serious artist, even if he will not return the compliment.

My definition of art, real art, is simple. Art is/are the representations that stay with me – no, more than that – “real art” changes me and becomes an integral part of me, long after I leave the theater, close the book or quit the program.

Viola’s Acceptance is real art for me.

Acceptance is considered the final stage of grief. In Acceptance, the woman suffers intensely for most of the piece. She will emerge whole and strong. Water seems to be the source of her suffering. During the grieving process, the suffering is also the healing. We must endure the experience in order to move toward acceptance and move forward in our lives. Ann says that Viola was criticized for pairing such a young, healthy body with an older face. I believe he captured the acceptance stage of grief with amazing clarity. The body will heal first. The griever will soon recover to the point where she can cook, teach, run marathons. However, her soul has not fully recovered, perhaps it never will. Some of the most paralyzing grieving pains leave scars that persist long after the body and even the mind has progressed into “acceptance”. We see this on the woman’s face.  Sometimes I see this when I look in the mirror too.

Viola works hard to capture the “uncapturable”. However, in the new media, one may also capture these moments by chance. The look on a woman’s face when she first sees her husband returning from Afghanistan missing both legs. The moment a peaceful act of civil disobedience turns into mob violence. The tools for making videos are in the hands of everyone, not just the serious artists. Anyone with grade school children and an iPhone soon discovers that nothing is sacred from the amateur videographer. Not all of it is art, to be sure, but sometimes the unedited, chance events captured by video can make as striking an impact on the viewer as the highly constructed works of Viola.

I do not believe I have reached the acceptance stage of grieving for Comet yet. However, the memories are starting to lose their clarity. I used to believe that Comet would wink at me whenever he had something particularly sly to communicate. Lately, I’ve convinced myself that the wink was just my imagination.  Then, as I was looking to clear some of the footage from my iPhone to recover some memory, I discovered this video that my daughter Simonne had taken:

New Medium, Old Conventions

This afternoon, in our New Media Seminar, we had the bizarre experience of following the Twitter stream of Marshall McLuhan, whose writings we were discussing. McLuhan passed away some time ago so apparently he was tweeting from the grave. I struggled a bit to comprehend McLuhan’s message that the “medium was the message.” How could the format, the vehicle, be more important than the content?

Regarding contemporary science, content is everything. More specifically, data are everything. Someone might articulate the most elegant and compelling theories regarding the most significant unknowns in the natural world, but until evidence in the form of reproducible data are generated to support those theories, little attention is given to these thinkers. Rare is the scientist-philosopher, and that is a shame.

How do scientists communicate their content, their data? Through the 20th century, “serious” scientific content was communicated in print, specifically, in peer-reviewed journals. The format of a scientific journal article in my field is fairly rigid: Abstract (150-300 words, depending on the journal), Introduction (literature review), Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion, References. Strict page or word limitations exist for most journals. The “meat” of the scientific article is the Results section, conveyed through a series of figures and tables (usually 5-10 per article). Each figure possesses a descriptive legend of a few sentences. The Results section also contains a narrative “walk” through the data in prose, with references to the figures and table.

The Discussion section that follows should provide deeper interpretation of the data and make connections to other published works in the field. For the most part, speculations that extend beyond the scope of the data are not permitted. Philosophizing is prohibited entirely.

There is little room for literary creativity in scientific articles. I once worked in the same department as a brilliant developmental biologist who submitted a research article with the Abstract written as a limerick. All of the requisite information was present, the abstract fell within the 200-word limit, and it began with “there once was an embryo from…” The journal refused to publish his article.

Scientific articles are written, submitted to the journal of choice and then reviewed by two or three scientists selected by the editors of the journal. The reviewers are kept anonymous. Depending on the opinions of the reviewers (the jury) and the final decision of the editor (the judge) the article will be accepted as is (rare), accepted with modifications, or rejected entirely.

How has scientific communication changed in the era of electronic media? Most journals are published both in electronic and print format. Some are published entirely on-line. Nowadays, the submission and review process is conducted electronically, which has accelerated the time from submission to decision from a matter of months to a matter of weeks. Beyond these efficiencies, the medium has not changed the message very significantly.
The switch to electronic journal format has not really altered the kinds of data submitted, with the exception of videos, which can provide compelling records of temporal experiments. Undoubtedly, each article typically contains more data, since page charges are no longer a restriction. However, much of these data are relegated to “Supplementary Materials” accessed only as a link from the main page. Perhaps the greatest change is in the references, which are now hot links to the article cited, accessible provided the linked article is published in an open access journal or the reader works for an institution with a paid subscription to that journal. This practice of linking journal-to-journal is a bit reminiscent of Bush’s Memex with the added dimensions of the World Wide Web.

With these exceptions, the electronic journals have adopted the conventions of the print medium: Abstract-Introduction-Methods-Results-Discussion-Reference. Reviewers remain anonymous, even more so, because in the old days, it was sometimes possible to determine the reviewer from the handwriting, and a few bold souls would proudly sign their reviews.

And most significantly, once an article is published, it becomes a fait accompli. The work becomes a defined and static entity, a unit known as a “pub”. This is where the greatest opportunities are missed, I believe. Once a scientific article is published, even in electronic format, there is no simple mechanism for amendment to that body of work. If the scientists who wrote the article discover that they made a mistake, they must submit a formal Erratum, which remains a real mark of shame in the scientific community. “You lazy bum – why weren’t you more careful in the first place.” It would be so simple and seems so logical in the current medium for scientists to be able to amend their own work, to post additional data, whether confirming or contradictory to the original conclusions, in order to continue a line of inquiry.

And the process of linking one data set to another remains hindered by the packaging of bodies of work into the conventions of an article. When one published article is linked to the referenced article therein, the link is to the other article in its entirely, not to the specific relevant figure or statement from that work.

In writing many of my own articles, I have wanted to compare my own results to a particular data set from another article. There is no convenient way to link to that information, even though it is readily available. Part of the problem is copyright, but equally challenging is the mindset that the body of work as originally published must be kept intact. Even with proper referencing and permission, it is simply not considered acceptable form to deconstruct a scientific publication in order to make new meaning.

Some journals have added moderated comment threads to the on-line version of the articles. I haven’t seen much dialog generated from these, but I suspect there are lively discussions on some of the most active and disputed areas of inquiry. Hopefully, this will be a step in the direction of a more free-flowing discussion and exchange of scientific ideas. However, I doubt that many scientists will post unpublished data in such a forum for fear of being scooped. As long as (academic) scientists are judged by the number or publications and the impact factors of the journals in which they publish, scientific dialog will largely be restricted to the current norms.

However, if the medium is the message, then change seems inevitable. Much of that change is probably underway, but I lack the vantage point to see the forest for the trees that surround me. I look forward to the time in my life where I can appreciate these changes in scientific communication. The nature of the current medium seems to almost guarantee that the practice of science will be more collaborative and more inclusive than the environment in which I was trained. My students will be working in that new realm, and I pledge to do all that I can to help them prepare for what could well be another revolution in science.

I want to be a Smalltalk kid

When I was a kid, I really wanted to pack up and move to California. I’m not sure why. Southern New Hampshire was, and still is, a very nice place to live. But California just seemed so much cooler. I had visions of learning to surf, of not wearing shoes to school, of wearing shorts more than two weeks out of the year. Now I know why growing up in California would have been really cool – I could have been a Smalltalk kid.

In reading Kay and Goldberg’s Personal Dynamic Media and some other writing of theirs:…/SSL-77-2_Teaching_Smalltalk.pdf,

I am captivated by the thought of elementary and middle children programming, in the 1970’s no less. Not programming programming, I thought when I first read about this. In other words, not writing code.  But sure enough, that’s what these kids were doing.

Here’s where I have to make a few confessions. I don’t have many phobias, but the ones I harbor are potent:

1) snakes

2) these things:

trust me, growing up in the 70's was traumatic.

3. computers

I’ve not conquered any of these fears to my satisfaction, but thanks to Apple, I can get by in the digital age. I am a competent user of computers, as long as I can delude myself that they are sentient beings and I don’t actually have to do anything to make them work. In other words, as long as I don’t have to PROGRAM them.  The first computers I remember using when I was a kid were FRIGHTENING. Black screen, white pixelly font. Make one mistake and you were done. Error messages and no clue how to get back to the main screen. I resisted all encouragement to engage with computers in K – 12 and it wasn’t until I was in college and the first personal Macs were available that I used a computer.

After reading Kay and Goldberg, I think the phobia stems from the fact that I was never introduced to programming. And even now as a responsible adult, I am no more motivated to take a programming class than I am to take a herpetology class. It may be time to make that first step.

I realize that these days, we can do just about anything we want with computers without having to program them. I am grateful for that. However, after reading Kay and Goldberg, and their description of the depth of learning achieved by the Smalltalk kids, I think that some experience with programming could be very powerful for many. A reminder that we have the power to change what we see on the screen. That we have agency, as Shelli says.

After the New Media Seminar completes, there will definitely be a void in the “how have I challenged myself this week” category of my life. Maybe I will learn a new language, like C++ or Java. I can see the nightmares now.  Two doors in front of me and I am being chased by giant kewpie dolls. Behind one door awaits a pit of writhing snakes. Behind the other, a long winding road through the countryside and a super fast bike. Between them , an ancient computer that speaks only Fortran controlling both locks. blink, blink, blink


Ted Nelson makes me cry.

Overall, I love reading Ted Nelson. His vision, his compassion, his honesty, his humor, even his arrogance are endearing. However, I cannot read “No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks” without becoming so overcome that I have to shut my door and just cry.

I’m not even sure what emotion is driving the tears. Nelson should be validating for me. I work hard to break down the silos among traditional disciplines. I am exhausted from that effort and yes, those battles. I am not condescending. I don’t even give tests in my class. For that, I have been criticized by my peers as being “easy”, although my students tell me otherwise.

Why is it so painful to read this piece by Nelson? I am a teacher, but I am also an administrator. I tell students ‘no’ a lot.  “No, you cannot design your own curriculum. If you want a degree in X, you need to take the courses in X.”  “No, I cannot make your professor give you an exam in an alternative format unless you are granted this diagnosis by this medical professional and complete this form and have it signed by this person and this one and this one.” “No, you cannot switch sections of your class so that you can learn from the instructor with whom you best relate.” I don’t make the rules, but I enforce them. No, no NO!

Am I a part of “much that is wrong, even evil” in higher education?  Am I just another brick in the wall that stands between students and their learning? I suppose that I am, and maybe that is why Ted Nelson makes me cry.  On the other hand, if I leave this post, who will replace me? Might there be an even denser brick? Because sometimes, I do say yes, even when I am supposed to say no.

I am a teacher and an administrator, but I am also a scientist, and I like evidence. I am trying very hard to see Ted Nelson’s vision through. Where are the children turned adults who have never been to school, whose learning is fueled by their own enthusiasm and innovation, completely unfettered by the confines of subjects and curricula? When my own kids are set free with computer time (granted, time that was earned by subjecting them to such cruelties as math homework and read-aloud) where does their innate curiosity and passion for learning take them? As often as not  – to episodes of televisions programs from the Disney Channel. Has a day at public school sucked the curiosity and intellect right out of them? I really don’t think so.

They are often at their best when they have a loosely structured assignment.  My older daughter is studying watersheds and has been assigned to build a watershed using any material she likes. She has spent hours in her room each evening, and the product is a masterpiece. Granted, I am not thrilled at having spent $45 on licorice, gum and squirt frosting, but it is truly a watershed to behold. My younger daughter hates practicing her guitar, but when I am looking for my new iPad (thanks New Media Seminar), I usually find it in her room, where she is jamming along to the latest Disney star while jotting down lyrics for her own song. In both cases, my kids are learning and creating, not rigidly “disciplined” but not without some structure and discipline either.

Thanks Ted Nelson for giving me so much food for thought. I am not crying anymore. Maybe I am an evil administrator, but fortunately, I am also a mom, and that is almost always enough to put a smile back on my face.


While I am still working up the courage to write about Ted Nelson, I thought folks might enjoy a glimpse at what Bjork is doing with new media. Clearly this is an artist who was not stifled or squelched by formal education – thank goodness.

Thanks to my husband, Denis, for sharing the report I missed on NPR:

Bjork’s Biophilia


RIP, Mr. Jobs


Steve Jobs, "Computers are like a bicycle for our minds."