Monday, November 24, 2014

Parameters of Pedagogy 3: Courses I have taught (or taken)

Now that I’ve put some ideas on the table – Vygotsky, coaching, lecturing – I want to describe four different courses, three of which I’ve taught, one that I took. All of that took place in the ancient days before personal computing and the web. My objective is simply to get four different kinds of courses together in one document.

What affordances to these course have for co-learning?

Freshman Comp

I was trained in English literature, which means that, like just about everyone with such training, I also had to teach composition – first, to earn my tuition while getting the degree and then when I got my first (and only) teaching job. The fact is that Ph. D. training in literature doesn’t even train you to teach literature – at least it didn’t back in those days – much less train you to teach writing, with is an entirely different kind of activity. The two have only one thing in common: the written language.

One consequence of this disparity is that many a freshman comp course has been taught as a “content” course that just happens to have a lot of writing assignments, generally weekly. Between graduate school and my faculty job at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) I taught freshman comp, say, a half dozen or more times. I doubt that I taught it the same way twice and I forget what I did most of the times I taught the course.

But, one time at RPI I taught the course using a reader – a common thing to do. I forget which of the many such readers I used, but, like all of them, it had a large selection of pieces, both fictional and not, which you could use as the basis of a writing assignment. The weekly assignment, then, is simple: Read such and such a selection and write such and such a piece based on what you read. I’m sure I had some strategy with which I selected the weekly assignments, and I’m sure I allowed various alternatives as well, but I don’t remember that.

As I recall, the major difficulty was in making useful comments about student writing, where the problems ranged from grammar and spelling to theme, organization, and logic. I often thought that it would have been easier for me simply to re-write a sentence or paragraph than to explain what was wrong, why it was wrong, and how to do better. I note in passing that this was before the days of personal computers, much less before the time when every student had one.

I came away from this experience with two general impressions: First, what you need to do to learn to write is, above all, to write, a lot. More than you do in a one-semester composition course. Writing a lot may even be more important and useful than having an instructor make sometimes helpful sometimes obscure remarks on your paper. Second, this really would go better with weekly one-hour one-on-one tutorial sessions, like music lessons.

From Multiple Personalities to Dissociative Identity Disorder

Below the asterisks I've copied some remarks about this disorder from my article, First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction, PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts, August 21, 2000.

* * * * *

There is another aspect of the neural self, one that has to do with the continuity and coherence of the representation. We can approach this issue by considering dissociative identity disorder (DID), an extreme pathology in which the neural self is fractured. In DID, also known as multiple personality disorder, one biological individual exhibits several different identities, each having different memories and personal style. In Thigpen and Cleckley's (1957) classic study Eve had three personalities; Schreiber's (1973) Sybil had sixteen (see also Rappaport 1971, Stoller 1973). Although there has been some controversy over whether or not DID is real or simply the effect of zealous therapeutic invention and intervention, there is no doubt that at least some cases are genuine (Schachter 1996, 236-242, Spiegel 1995, 135-138).

These different identities have different personal histories. The events in one personal history typically are unknown to the other histories. Each identity will have blank periods in its history, intervals, obviously, where another identity was being enacted. And the different "persons" are often unaware of one another. Further, the different identities seem to have different personal styles, different modes of speech, of movement, of dress, and so forth. Thus both the core and autobiographical selves seem to be riven. Using the conventions we employed above, Figure 7 is a simple depiction of DID:

Fig 7 DID

Figure 7: Dissociative Identity Disorder

Notice that we now have two neural selves, NS1 and NS2, corresponding to two different identities. Of course, these two selves exist in the same body, so we have only one corresponding body in the external world.

We do not, so far as I know, understand why or how DID happens. It is not, however, the result of the sort of gross destruction of brain tissue that underlies anosognosia. One might imagine, for example, that the different selves reside in distinctly different patches of neural tissue, a speculation that Damasio (1999b, 355) himself has suggested for the autobiographical self (though he presents no evidence). This suggestion, however, has at least one problem: How does the nervous system switch from one identity to another? There is another way of explaining DID, equally speculative and equally without specific evidence, that eliminates this particular problem.

Robert Boyd on Cooperation

Why do humans cooperate in ways that other mammals don't? In the non-human world almost all cooperation can be explained in terms of genetic relatedness between the cooperators (via kin selection or reciprocal altruism). Humans are different. There is a great deal of cooperation between people who aren't genetically related.

H/t Tim Tyler.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Extraordinary Borrowed Luminosity


Street Aesthetics: Why Jerkface is Killin’ It



Three things are distinctly odd about these images, both by Jerkface – as you see, Bugs Bunny is on canvas; Sylvester is on a wall. Neither face has eyes, and both pictures appear to be “pierced” by a pattern of squares, and Bugs has multiple ears and Sylvester has multiple paws. Note that the pattern of squares doesn’t respect the distinction between foreground and background – well, in the Bugs Bunny it almost does, but it definitely doesn’t in the Sylvester.

Let’s start with the squares. As a comparison, let’s look at this graffiti piece:


In typical fashion the name dominates the image. What interests me are those rectilinear forms walking over the surface. The name-form is bordered in orange and we orange rectilinears merging into that outline, with a few free of it. The blue and green rectilinears within the name-form work a bit differently. Some of them respect the letter-form boundaries, but some extend beneath those boundaries while others go over it.

The overall effect is similar to that of the square’s in the Jerkface images. In all three cases we’ve got to quasi-independent image “logics” that intersect one another in the image plane. One is figural – cartoon characters for Jerkface, a name for the graffiti piece – and the other is a relatively simple geometric pattern.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Stairs, light, shadow


Interdisciplinarity is the Utopian Dream of an academic culture whose time is rapidly running out

I was looking around over at dana boyd’s joint, apophenia, and came across an old post: identity crisis: the curse/joy of being interdisciplinary and the future of academia. Ah yes, by all means interdisciplinary, what’s not to like?

The Romance of Interdisciplinarity

Here’s the penultimate sentence of her first paragraph: “The last big explosion was really the French scholars circling around in 1968.” Well for me the year is 1966, that’s when much the same group of French scholars landed at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore at the (in)famous structuralism conference. While I didn’t attend the conference – wouldn’t have done me any good, as I don’t speak French – I was at Hopkins at the time and one of the conference organizers, Dick Macksey – though in those days it was “Dr. Macksey” – was my mentor.

And here’s the opening sentence of boyd’s last paragraph: “So, if i think about what the next revolution in academia will be, it will have to be interdisciplinary.” But, you see, that 1966 structuralism conference was sponsored by Ford Foundation money and that money was specifically interested in interdisciplinarity. That’s what that conference was about. And that’s what the newly-founded Humanities Center, which hosted those Frenchmen, was about.

How is it, then, that forty years after that conference dana boyd is looking to the ever-lovin’ future for interdisciplinarity? If interdisciplinarity really was the future, as seen from 1966, why is it still the future, both in 2005 (when boyd published that post) and even near the end of 2014 as I sit here at 6AM writing this post?
Question: What happened to the interdisciplinary future?

Answer: It’s floated down the river Styx into the 19th century past.
There has in fact been a great deal of interdisciplinary work since 1966, but it’s just not reflected in the names of academic departments. What you have are interdisciplinary centers of all kinds. Each draws on faculty from several departments and picks up funding wherever spare change drops off departmental tables here and there. But these “centers” don’t have the power to confer degrees. That power still remains with the academic departments, and they’re a legacy of 19th century academia.

What we have, then, is departments that are still committed to traditional avenues of investigation and still, for the most part, cranking out scholars most of whom see little choice but to color within those lines. But you also have folks like boyd, or Mark Changizi, or even a Steven Pinker who don’t play by those rules and consequently are frustrated. Boyd’s not in academia – or only marginally so – Changizi left a couple of years ago; and Pinker spends half his time writing for the general educated public.

Of course, boyd knows this.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Fotos: New York's Times Square from the Jersey Side



Obviously you can't see Times Square from across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. But you can see the tops of buildings around it.

Why Cultural Evolution Needs a Distinction Between “Genes” and “Phenotypes”

I’m thinking I’m about to burn out on cultural evolution, so this will be relatively short and informal.
* * * * *

Ever since I began thinking about a Darwinian process for cultural evolution back in the mid-1990s I’ve insisted on making a distinction between phenotypic entities (which I’m now calling “phantasms”) and genotypic entities (which I’m now calling “coordinators”). Why? My basic reason was to preserve the analogy between the cultural evolutionary process and biological.

That’s understandable, and it was a reasonable thing to do – back then. But there’s been a great deal of discussion about whether or not such a distinction needs to be made for cultural evolution, and if so: how do we make it? Some thinkers, like Dennett and Blackmore don’t make such a distinction at all, being content to theorize about memes, which are thus more like viruses than genes. To be sure, they’ve not gotten very far, nor for that matter has anyone else. But still, the issue must be faced, for there needs to be a better reason for such a distinction than the mere logic of analogy.

After all, what if the underlying logic of cultural evolution is different from that of biological evolution? What if there is no distinction comparable to the genotype-phenotype distinction?

My contention is that there is such a distinction and I’m now prepared to offer a reason for it:
Culture resides in people’s minds and the mind is in the head. We cannot read one another’s minds.
The environment to which cultural entities must adapt is the collective human mind. That’s been clear to me for a long time. And, of course, various conceptions of collective minds have been around for a long time as well. The problem is to formulate a conception in contemporary terms, terms which admit of no mystification.

I did that in the second and third chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil (2001) where I argued that when people make music together, and dance as well, their actions and perceptions are so closely coupled that we can think of a collective mind existing for the duration of that coupling. There are no mystical emanations engulfing the group. It’s all done through physical signals, electro-chemical signals inside brains, visual and auditory signals between individuals.

In this model the genetic elements of culture are the physical coordinators that support this interpersonal coupling. These coordinators are the properties of physical things – streams of sound, visual configurations, whatever – and as such are in the public sphere where everyone has access to them. Correspondingly, the phenotypic elements are the mental phantasms that arise within individual brains during the coupling. These phantasms are necessarily private though, in the case of music making, each person’s phantasm is coordinated with those of others.

If those phantasms are pleasurable ¬– I defined pleasure in terms of neural flow in chapter four of Beethoven’s Anvil – then people will be motivated to repeat the activity and those phantasms will thus be repeated. One of the factors that lead to pleasure is precisely the capacity to share the experience with others. The function of coordinators is to support the sharing of activities and experiences. Just as genes survive only if the phenotypes carrying them are able to reproduce, so coordinators survive only if they give rise to sharable phantasms.

Culture is sharable. That’s the point. If it weren’t sharable it couldn’t be able to function as a storehouse of knowledge and values.

* * * * *

That, briefly and informally, is it. Obviously more needs to be done, a lot more. I can do some of it, though not now. But much of the heavy lifting is going to have to be done by people with technical skills that I don’t have.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The River Styx


Co-learning Models: Meta-Cognition, Democratic Schools, and Entrepreneurs

I have some brief reactions to three of the topics that came up in last evening’s Connected Courses webinar (with Cathy Davidson & 3 of her students, David Preston and a students, Mia Zamora, Howard Rheingold, & Alec Couros), Successful Co-learning Models: 1) metacognition, 2) before higher ed, and 3) start-ups.


Cathy Davidson talked about how she had students write their own letters of evaluation and how the things they wrote surprised and, I gather, delighted her. Starting about 15:50 in:
... self-knowledge, or learning how I thought, Howard would call it metacognition, those introspective words were the words that came up more in people’s self-evaluation or what they learned, even if they were talking about project learning, than I ever in any other way would have thought about, and I’ve never see that in the literature. Where somehow learning how to coll[borate]…putting together what everyone has said. Learning to work with others makes you think about who you are. I mean, that makes sense as social creatures that it would. But it was fascinating to read those letters.
Yes. If you are going to learn to learn, then you need to think about your learning process, you need to think about how you think.

Putting my Piagetian hat on I note that Piaget argued that later cognitive stages bootstrapped over earlier stages through a process of reflective abstraction. The mechanisms of cognition at stage N become the objects of cognition at N+1. Is that process what those students were reporting in their self-evaluations?

There is, of course, a Vygotskian angle as well, which Davidson indicated when she noted: “Learning to work with others makes you think about who you are.” As students query one another and respond to those queries they come to internalize the query function, which serves as a bootstrap mechanism.

And if, as Davidson suggested, this isn’t in the literature, then here’s a whiz-bang dissertation project for someone ready to take it on.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Beethoven in Memphis

In 1838 Ole Bull, the Norwegian violin virtuoso, gave the first classical concert ever heard in Memphis, Tennessee. I don’t know what he played on that occasion, but that’s beside the point. What could he have played? That was the year that Felix Mendelssohn thought of writing a concerto in E minor—which would come to be known simply as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, a staple of the classical repertoire—for his friend, Ferdinand David. Obviously Bull could not have performed this work. But he could have performed Bach, Hayden, Mozart, or Beethoven. Classical music was in full flower and the blues, jazz, rock and roll, they were still in the distant and unforeseeable deeply unpredictable future.

I would like to think Ole Bull performed some Beethoven, who had been dead for eleven years. Even more, I would like to think that Ole Bull was a pianist, not a violinist, and that he performed Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111, the one with rocking and rolling passages in the second movement (starting are roughly 14:20):

That passage certainly marked the remotest outpost of the Western musical imagination, which didn’t become comfortable with that kind of expressive material for another three-quarters of a century. Even then the comfort was strictly circumscribed. And Memphis in 1838 would certainly have impressed Ole Bull, or any other civilized European, as being pretty near the dropping-off point of Western civilization.

Green Villain Plots Galactic Skywriting Program from Secret R&D Lab on the Outskirts of Jersey City

Green Villain has enlisted the services of Bradley Ehrsam to craft the technology that will take it out of this world. These hyper-flux transducers have two modes of operation:


In afferent mode they detect those subtle fluctuations in The Force indicating the existence of opportunities for aesthetic intervention by any means necessary. In efferent mode they provide power for Green Villain's fleet of interstellar transport vehicles:

And here's the GV nerve center...

Learning to Learn and Co-learning, NOW

I have a few remarks in response to the recent dialog with Howard Rheingold, Mia Zamora, Alec Couros, Lee Skallerup Bessette, Charlotte Pierce, and Joe Corneli on Co-learning and Authority. What interests me is the question that Mia Zamorra brought up at the end (47:43): Why co-learning now?

But I don’t want to go there directly. Let’s meander just a bit. In the following remarks I’m thinking out loud. There’s a lot of guessing and surmising. But I bring in a bit of concrete evidence at the end.

Learning and Acquisition

The question of how young kids learn came up early in the conversation. Learn what? I ask because one of the things Noam Chomsky did was change how we think about language learning. He observed that children don’t “learn” language in the ordinary sense of the term, which implies deliberate focused activity. They just “hoover” it up; that is, there is little or no deliberate learning or, for that matter, instruction. “Acquisition” has become the term of art, “first-language acquisition.”

Second language learning in adulthood, in contrast, is learning in the ordinary sense. So is learning arithmetic, or, for that matter, learning to ride a bicycle. What’s the underlying difference between “natural” acquisition and effortful learning?

I suspect there is something of a continuum between the two modes and that acquisition tapers off after adolescence, when brain maturation is almost complete (there’s incremental growth into the early twenties). Further, we don’t really engage children in sustained effortful learning until formal schooling begins at six or so. In Piagetian terms, formal learning begins with the concrete operations period of cognitive growth and acquisition ends with the commencement of formal operations.

We might put the issue in a broader perspective: Is focused effortful learning uniquely human or is it widespread among animals? I’m going to guess that, with a major qualification, it’s uniquely human. The qualification is that humans can and do train animals to do all sorts of things, and that training is effortful learning.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Marc Andreeson on Online Education

New York Magazine interviews Marc Andreeson, co-founder of Netscape turned venture capitalist. Here's what he says about online education, with some skeptical remarks of my own at the end:
You could probably bring in the whole online-education movement. But for me, the question is, who does the best with online schooling? And it’s mostly ­autodidacts, people who are self-starters. They’ve found that people from low-income communities actually get the least out of it.

It’s way too early to judge, because we’re at the very beginning of the development of the technology. It’s like critiquing dos 1.0 and saying that this will never turn into the Windows PC. We’re still in the prototype experimental phase. We can’t use the old approach to teach the world. We can’t build that many campuses. We don’t have the space. We don’t have money. We don’t have the professors. If you can go to Harvard, go to Harvard. But that’s not the question. The question is for the 14-year-old in Indonesia staring at a life of either, like, subsistence farming or being able to get a Stanford-quality education and being able to go into a profession.

The one other thing that people are really underestimating is the impact of entertainment-industry economics applied to education. Right now, with MOOCS, the production values are pretty low: You’ll film the professor in the classroom. But let’s just project forward. In ten years, what if we had Math 101 online, and what if it was well regarded and you got fully accredited and certified? What if we knew that we were going to have a million students per semester? And what if we knew that they were going to be paying $100 per student, right? What if we knew that we’d have $100 million of revenue from that course per semester? What production budget would we be willing to field in order to have that course?

You could hire James Cameron to do it.

You could literally hire James Cameron to make Math 101. Or how about, let’s study the wars of the Roman Empire by actually having a VR [virtual reality] experience walking around the battlefield, and then like flying above the battlefield. And actually the whole course is looking and saying, “Here’s all the maneuvering that took place.” Or how about re-creating original Shakespeare plays in the Globe Theatre?