Thursday, May 31, 2012

What Is Scholarship?

What is scholarship? Technology has changed the way in which at least some scholarship is done, but the basics of scholarship have not changed much. The rabbi in the photograph is engaged in a very familiar kind of scholarship, perhaps his, or one like his, is the image that comes first to our minds when we hear the word "scholarship," a picture of someone, usually wearing glasses, poring over an old, thick book. And though the technology can bring things to everyone that were not readily available to everyone there are things the technology, at present, cannot easily bring us. Where source documents may be made available to people in ways they never were before, contemporary scholarship is not readily available online. In part this is because it is by selling books that scholars and publishers earn a living and this means, for the foreseeable future some things will not be at our fingertips and will not be free. Much of the online research materials resemble encyclopedias, they give useful information but they do not usually pursue their subjects in very great depth.

This is a problem that needs to be considered when using computers and iPads and the like as research tools. It is important that students do not develop the habit of settling for less because "less" is what most easily comes to hand. While acclimating students to the technology and teaching them how to use the technology effectively, it must also be stressed that when information on the topic under investigation cannot be found in sufficient depths online, then more traditional sources need to be considered. Traditional research methods and sources should not be seen as antithetical to the "new" tools of study, but as complementary to these new tools. It is important for students to learn that just because information can be found more quickly online does not mean the best, the most thorough sources of that information can be found online. Students need to learn to use the new tools but they need also to be encouraged to develop a "scholarly" attitude towards the material they are using for their research and a key component of the scholarly attitude is skepticism. Does this source tell me enough? Does this source get it right? Are there other points of view? Often the Internet gives us "face value" a good look at the surface, but if you want to get "under the skin" of things you have to look around. Just as it is probably true that the traditional library is not necessarily better than the Internet, it is also probably true that the Internet is not necessarily better than the conventional library.

To make online research a little easier for students I added the "Dunno" app to their iPads. This app searches the Internet for articles on areas of interest identified by the student. It does a Google type search, but it seems to be a bit more focused than Google. It also saves the articles it finds under the name of the search, so that students can, if they need to, revisit the sources of the information they have found. The app integrates, sort of, features of Google with features of Diigo. I also placed a link on my web page to instagrok. Instagrok is another web resource that aids in searching the web. It provides a mind map of sorts on a topic so that students can explore more easily sources of information related to the subject of their original search. So, for example, if you enter Geoffrey Chaucer you get a big Chaucer bubble in the middle with little bubbles surrounding the "big bubble" that link to such topics as Petrarch, England, and Middle English, among others. Many of the links will have many of the shortcomings of many web research sites, but the resource offers what can be an effective way to begin doing research on a topic.

The video focuses on the lengths to which some will go to recover an important piece of knowledge. It also talks about the importance of making manuscripts and texts, classical and othwise, available to those that need or desire to study them. It may be that at some point in the future the profit motive and the needs of good scholarship will reconcile themselves. We all need to make a living and that is often done by one person selling something to another person. But the interests of education and learning are often frustrated by the price tag that accompanies the enterprise. I think the nation and the world benefit by making knowledge and learning as available as possible, making it possible for those with the ability, interest, and motivation to learn to learn in an affordable way. Still, it is difficult to not be amazed by the work done by those working with the Archimedes Palimpsest. Perhaps the view of the curator of the the Walters Art Museum will prevail and other museums and libraries will make their manuscripts more available to the general public. But even if they do not, I think there is value in considering the zeal, the curiosity, the love of ancient things, and the love of sharing knowledge that motivated these scholars and scientists and their work.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Making Fun

There seems to be a belief in contemporary culture that work and play, that labor and fun are mutually exclusive concepts; that work can never be play and that our labor can never be fun and if they are like play or like fun there is something suspect. Our work and our labor are things we do to subsidize our play and our fun. This need not be true, in fact it ought not be true if we work and plan wisely for our futures (unfortunately there is also probably a degree of luck involved as well). Of course the play and the fun must be extensions of the work itself and not activities that are unrelated to the work done mainly to avoid the work itself. I must like baseball and play by the rules of baseball; I cannot change the rules to make baseball resemble football or basketball because I prefer those games to the one we are playing. In the classroom there is nothing wrong with enjoying the study of math or science, or literature, so long as the study done in those classes are actually of math, science, and literature. There is nothing wrong with activities that make these disciplines more accessible to students, more fun, so long as those activities involve students in the mastery of the skills, knowledge, and practices of those disciplines. In fact this is the goal of most teachers, to impart to their students their passion for the discipline and the joys of the challenges these disciplines provide. For, generally speaking, most things that are easy become boring after a pretty short space of time.

The goal of education is not just to impart some bits of culture, a few rudimentary skills that will prove useful later in life, or to make students useful employees when they enter the world of work. Of course all these ought to be by products of education, but they are not the soul of learning and study. Students that go on to be able to teach themselves are usually students who have in addition to mastering skills and learning facts cultivated a love of learning, a healthy curiosity, and a passion for the workings of the mind and the putting of their own minds to work. For me as a teacher the aspects of the iPads in the classroom program that are the most exciting are those aspects that help the students discover the pleasures that can accompany the acquiring of knowledge and the exercise of the mind. To the extent the iPad has helped students to enjoy and take pleasure in what are legitimate learning experiences directly related to the study of literature and composition (the study of the English Language Arts) the program has been immensely successful. To the extent it has helped them learn things they needed to know for a test or to complete a unit, it has been useful, but I do not have the same confidence in students remembering what they have been compelled to learn as I am in there remembering what they have desired to learn.

It has always been said that empathy comes from understanding what it is to walk in another's shoes. Those of us who have completed our formal education (the informal variety ought never to be completed) have walked to an extent in our students' shoes; there is value in our trying to remember that experience. And even though I enjoyed school for the most part, there were things about it I did not enjoy and those things provide me some sense of what it must feel like for a student to feel "trapped" in a classroom. To be forced to get an education the importance of which is not clear to them. There are educational values to being bored, to being confused, these things can be channelled to positive ends, but it is difficult to get anyone to take seriously anything that does not seem to be important, whose value is elusive or unclear. As a teacher I know I cannot reach everyone; there are mysterious elements of personality that cause some students to be unresponsive to what I teach or to my manner of teaching it. But any tool that helps me to reach the students I can reach is a valuable tool.

The video is about building confidence. I do not know how many of us have the talent or the latent ability to become great artists. My guess is that not many of us do. But all of us have wells of creativity that enable us to bring insights to problems others do not have and bring a depth of imagination to what we do. Most I have talked to who teach the arts, theater, music, painting, etc. say that it is often not their most talented students that go on to achieve success at that art but the most driven. Many of the most talented have more than one interest or do not have confidence in their ability to succeed. For those with multiple interests it is probable that the interest they pursued gave them as much or more satisfaction as pursuing the arts would have given. But those that do not pursue a thing because they lack confidence are the ones I think it is most important to reach, because their futures can be changed for the better. A goal of life is to find that job, that vocation that in the doing of it we find pleasure, joy, and satisfaction; a career that involves more than killing time while waiting for time to kill us.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Lines of Vision

In the etching above there are many different sight lines. There is light coming through skylights in the ceiling and many different doorways and hallways, each with its own unique sight line. Each sight line creates a somewhat different picture with a different focal point and a different emphasis. Set design in the Renaissance theater of Continental Europe (The English theater evolved differently) were very elaborate and made great use of perspective to create the illusion of city streets with shops trailing off in the distance. The sets played with angles and sent streets and alleyways off in different directions. There was, however, only one seat in the theater where the perspective worked perfectly and every sight line created its illusory magic. This seat was called "the eye of the duke" because it was to the town's leading aristocrat that the seat belonged. Only the duke saw everything as it was intended to be seen, for everyone else some things worked and others didn't work quite so well, though the sets were still impressive. The way things look often depends on the way and the angle from which we look at them. The same is true with the technology we use in the classroom. The technology will not teach the lesson, it will not select the content of the course, and will not direct students through that content, though with proper guidance from an instructor the technology can serve those ends.

This is a photograph of one of the more famous French medieval towns, Mont Saint-Michel. The architecture of the town is very beautiful and the way it straddles the ocean is, to many, awe inspiring. It is an architectural and an engineering wonder in many ways. The location and architecture also served a military purpose in that it was unassailable. The design and "technology" served the needs of the day. As a teacher of English I find the technologies available to me can be used to effectively communicate the content of my discipline to students. It can help students learn about the context in which a story we are reading is set, the history and the culture that informs the literature. Plato said the mind will not retain what it has been forced to learn. Anyone who has ever taken or given a vocabulary test can attest to the truth of this. I think reading solely for information is reading for the wrong reason and whatever facts are gleaned from the hunt through the text are not likely to be remembered, they are facts that were sought for no real reason other than someone told the students to find some facts. But when those things are learned in a context they serve to improve students' understanding and appreciation of a story and the facts are more likely to remain with the students because the students had a purpose in seeking them.

This is another architectural wonder built on a body of water, the Frank Gehry designed museum at Bilboa, Spain. As a building it serves some of the same needs as the buildings on the island of Mont Saint-Michel, it provides shelter, and protects the buildings' contents. The materials, the technology, and the tools available to Gehry were very different from those available to the 13th century builders of the island monestary/town/fortress. The purposes are also a bit different because though Mont Saint-Michel has become something of a "museum piece" it was not built as one and though Bilboa has had a troubled history as a target of Basque Sepratists the museum was not built with a military purpose. But as buildings built by water both structures had to address many of the same architectural issues. A Math teacher has different goals and objectives than an English teacher. But both teachers are looking for effective ways of delivering the content. And just as the fortified town of Mont Saint-Michel was built to serve different goals than the museum in Bilbao, there are ends and purposes that both share. There are ends and purposes that a Math and an English teacher share as well.

As an English teacher I want students to read at different levels of understanding. I will be more successful with some students than with others, but the goal is to get all students as deeply into the texts we study as I can and to encourage them to write as cogently, analytically, and imaginatively as I can. The first goal is to get students to read for the literal meanings of the words. As a stand alone text what do the words communicate. The next step is to encourage students to explore the historical and cultural factors that influenced the texts. Next I would like students to consider the larger ramifications of characters and themes; that is to what extent are these characters and themes archtypal. The last level I would like students to consider is the ends of things. What are the ends that these characters are making for themselves, and what are the implications of the themes of the story to the future of that story, and to the future of those reading the story.

To put this into a context, and to use an example where each of these levels are somewhat easy to spot, consider the play The Crucible. The play is about a man standing up to a tyranial, though, at least initially, a well intentioned court. John Proctor takes a stand for truth and justice. He is a flawed man, but a proud man and a man of integrity. There is to this story the history of the Salem Witch Trials that provide the historical and cultural setting of the story, but there are also the McCarthy Hearings of the time the play was written that provide the historical and cultural context of the story. It is not necessary to understand these historical or cultural forces to appreciate the story, but it gives the story an added dimension and deeper sense of the real consequences of the issues the play confronts. In the play John Proctor is a tragic hero. He is an archtypal figure in the sense that, like Sampson from the Bible, or Oedipus from Oedipus the King, he is a character whose pursuit of truth and justice is put ahead of everything else. But Proctor, like Samson and Oedipus, is also a tragically flawed human being.

There are real and fatal consequences for the stands these characters take. But these characters none-the-less behave in ways that are not only courageous, but also exemplary, they represent the way people of integrity ought to act in such situations. Finally we see the end to which Proctor's choices are leading him and how these ends are inevitable. We also see the consequences of the court's behavior for the community at large. One of the roles of tragedy is to restore order to a troubled community. The behavior and death of Proctor ultimately result in a restoration of order to the community.

The technology used properly can guide students trough these layers and help them discover them and their significance on their own. Of course the students must still bring something to the table, they have to make an honest attempt to engage the material, because as already stated, the mind will not retain what it is coerced to learn. And if the material is only pursued because an instructor has forced them to make the pursuit, it is not likely to have much staying power, it is not likely to escape the bonds of short term memory.

Students can, though, be guided through a search of the history and culture of Puritan New England and 1950's America. Students can be pointed towards characters from mythology, folklore, and literature that share many of Proctor's character traits and then reflect on the significance of these similarities across the literature. Students can blog on and discuss the consequences of the play for the characters in the play and the implications of these consequences in their, the students' own lives. But at the end of the day we need to consider our "line of vision." Where are we trying to go, what are we trying to accomplish, how do we best serve the ends we trying to achieve? How do I, as an English teacher, entice students to take the academic journey and reap the rewards the journey can bring.

The video clip is a lighthearted look at one of the more frequent frustrations of working with the technology. It is important to remember the technology is not foolproof nor without its annoyances and aggravations. It helps to bring a sense of humor to the enterprise and to not take things too seriously when they do not go as expected. Putting an iPad or a computer into the hands of every student will not accomplish much if those who teach them have not been effectively trained in how to use the technology. They need to be versed enough and experienced enough with the technology's shortcomings and frustrations that they can make light of them and encourage students to persevere when things do not go as expected. Any tool is only as good as those using the tool and those that teach others how to use a tool need to be well versed in the many uses of the tool but, more importantly, well versed in the tools many shortcomings. Failure is an important adjunct to success and we all need to learn to shape what does not work into something productive and useful. Some ask, "why reinvent the wheel?" But society does not really move forward until all the wheels, all those things we say "if it ain't broken don't fix it" about, are reinvented. Progress begins with looking differently at everything we have taken for granted.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Trying to make things work can be puzzling. I think we solved one of the two problems from last week. Instead of putting everyone into one big Edmodo group for the "Ask an Historian" exercise, I created four groups and entered all the students into two groups, one group for asking a question and one group for answering a question. It seemed to work today, we'll watch it, though. The other problem with the QuickTime podcast videos looked like it was figured out but, as it happens, it wasn't solved. But this is all about learning stuff, both for the teacher and the student. As in the picture, things are not always as they appear. Is this a table or a bustling village. Much of life is making something out of the unexpected. But this is also often where the interest and the excitement lives. Students working with the Edmodo site last week were confused about some things. What kind of questions to ask, what constitutes a thorough examination of the reading. When students are used to doing quizzes where the issue they were asked to explore we're spelled out fr them, not much thought had to be given to what to write about, you wrote about what the teacher asks you to write about. But open ended questions where the "scene selections" are left to the students along with the analysis of what the scenes might suggest produces some struggles in some and makes others uncomfortableu. Perhaps this suggests that along the way I have been doing too much and asking them to do too little. For even the best students too often the quest is not to learn and discover, but to get someone, usually the teacher, to tell them the answer.

There was an interesting little blog posting I found recently about the best way to learn things. It's called "The Feynman Technique to Learn Things Faster. I have always believed, as have most teachers I have known, the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. The Feynman technique provides a very simple formula for learning by teaching. There are four simple steps: write down the topic, pretend you are teaching it to someone else by writing down the steps, go back to the book when you get stuck, and simplify the language by putting it into your own words. If you can actually find someone to teach the topic to, you will probably achieve mastery fairly quickly (depending a bit on how patient the "students" are and how willing they are to let you return to the book when they ask you a question that leaves you perplexed. But in the process of teachg you find out where the holes in your knowledge are and learn what needs to be done to fill those holes. It is important to remember that eveyone's knowledge has holes, and it is especially important that students see where the holes in our knowledge are because the best teaching technique is to show others what we do when we encounter a question we cannot answer, when we are confronted with something we should know but do not know. Much of effective teaching is transparency, letting students see how we learn and wrestle with difficult problems. The most important thing to learn is never the answer, but the practices to employ when an answer needs to be found and how those practices are put to work and how effectively they produce results. This is what students need to discover if they are to ever learn how to teach themselves.

I have enjoyed Rube Goldberg machines from the moment I was first introduced to them. As a child I loved the game Mouse Trap. I do not remember how it was played, what the rules were, or even the point of the mouse trap to the game, but I loved watching the trap being sprung. I think fully understanding a Rube Goldberg machine requires an appreciation of the laws of physics, the relationships of the parts to one another, and the absurdity of the job it does. Behind every machine is a kind of satiric commentary on the "age of machines" and satire is a literary concern. There is a manipulation the laws of physics and objects in motion, which is a scientific concern. The history of the Rube Goldberg machine follows the history of industrialization and pokes fun at a human fascination with machines, which is a cultural, historical, and sociological concern, all branches of social studies. Sometimes a bit of comic fun can provide an opening to some serious study.