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.

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