Friday, January 25, 2013

Linus Lives!

For many of you it is ancient history, a wonderful old Peanut's cartoon from the 1960s - I believe I had it many years ago on an orange T-Shirt; Linus is remarking to someone outside the frame: "I love mankind, it's People I can't stand!"  As with much of Schultz's work, the insight lingers long past the initial frame. So it is with Linus's wonderfully contradictory rant.  None of us wants to see ourselves as misanthropic curmudgeons.  We love mankind .  .  .  .  but.  Ah yes, but, as always the devil is in the details.  There is "us," the mankind we love, and there is "the other," the mankind we could love if only they didn't insist on [looking, talking, dressing, smelling, believing] the way they do!

I have always been fascinated by our defining and redefining of the notion of "we and them", of "us and the other," or as my father the sociologist would say, the "in-group" and the "out-group."  He loves to tell the story of when he first brought my mother to the small cluster of farms in a Mennonite community in southeastern South Dakota, to meet his family.  He was nervous because you see my mother was "nicht von unsere" - "not one of ours."  She hailed from that strange land of Pennsylvania and was some kind of indeterminate Protestant. It all worked out but not without occasional bumps in the road, caused most often by sins of inadvertent omission rather than intentional commission.

It has not always been thus. Across the millennia a sometimes subtle, sometimes horrifically violent contest has raged contesting the right to define  "mankind," that collective we love, and "people," the great unwashed herd we cannot stand. I would like to advance the notion that our media not only provide significant clues as to the current king of the "mankind" mountain, but are also important players in the coronation.

A brief walk through history if you will.  Prior to writing, it's guesswork, but fairly sophisticated guesswork.  In an oral culture "mankind" were those who shared our story, those whose sages spoke the same epic narratives that defined who we were and how we came to be. "People" were those who had been led astray by other tales of existence. With writing and books the narrative spread beyond the range of the speaker's voice, but only as far as the intellectual, literate, and usually theocratic elite. They continued to spread the "legitimate" narrative to "mankind" while ever more clearly defining where "mankind" stopped and "people" began.

The Renaissance and the printing press began to fracture the walls of narrative fidelity.  The stories began to breach the levies of authority and belief.  An increasingly literate middle class could encounter the stories of "the other" as written in lands where the other was "mankind" and where the newly engaged reader was "the people."  Movies banished forever the need for an elitist literacy.  The social narrative was no longer hidden amidst arbitrary squiggles on a page.  It moved and eventually spoke from the screen before our eyes like real folks, our folks.  Radio and TV eventually drew the oracles of the modern age out of Delphi and gave them a celebrity's seat in the living room.  "Mankind" watched our programs, the "people" attended to another channel - and it was becoming more difficult to tell them apart.  Who among that growing chorus of media voices were the pillars of "mankind," who were the sirens of "the people" calling us to the rocks?

And who now? In a world where we carry a community of a billion members in pocket or purse, it is important that we again ask, who is "mankind" and who are merely "people?"  There are those who would argue that social media have deposed the despots.  That "like" makes right.  I'm afraid it is not that simple. Consider where "like" leads us. According to "the Internet" [and as a popular Geico TV commercial reminds us, they can't say it on the Internet if it's not true] Rihanna has 61,617,468 friends or likes on Facebook, nudging out Eminem who has 61,269,210. In third place is Shakira with 54.8 million followers. Lady Gaga is fourth with 53.2 million and late singer Michael Jackson rounds out the top five celebrities on the site with 51.9 million fans.

If, as I assert above "mankind" are those who share our story, the sages who spoke the same epic narratives that defined who we were and how we came to be; then, for me anyhow, these millions of  "likes" still don't make right.  It is not that I would declare them the shunned "people" by virtue of their popularity.  It is not that "I can't stand them."  They are simply irrelevant in terms of an epic narrative that defines mankind.  Epistemologically speaking, they are trivial - an assertion that may well offend a few hundred million folks.

So if "like" doesn't define "mankind" in the digital world, what does?  I don't think we have figured that out yet. We haven't worked out how to distinguish popularity from quality in a world as porous and complex as the one enabled by the Internet.  And I'm growing ever closer to the idea that this may be a lesson we will only learn from the passage of time.  Consider your high school reunions.  At your 5th - if you have reached it yet - there will probably be a fairly high correlation with the social reality of graduation.  The popular kids will still be popular, the others not so much. Then at the 10th a shift occurs.  Some of the geeks and nerds will have flowered into interesting people with unique lives, and some of the high school heros will just be marking time, reliving past glories.  The trend continues, let me assure you, as the decades stretch out behind you.  Some of the popular kids remain popular and interesting, but many of the "uncool" kids rise to fascinating folks with intriguing perspectives on life. The point is that when we were back in high school, we really didn't have any idea who would become "mankind" and who would get stuck just being "people."

The same seems to be true of the digital world in which we currently live so much of our lives. Regardless of our chronological ages, in terms of "digital world," we are all quite young - still in high school, maybe a year or two past graduation.  We are still so young that we are probably unable to distinguish between "mankind" and the "people" with any certainty.  So I would caution us, to remember that now as then, popularity is not the best predictor of quality, of those who will come to define "mankind," and that "like" isn't always "right."

Monday, January 14, 2013

When Form Fractures Function

"Form follows function" is, for me, one of those "truisms" the realization of which distinguishes between a merely "educated individual" and a more fully "cultured mind."  As a matter of fact, I am confronted by that very distinction several times every semester when an otherwise bright and insightful student makes the heartfelt claim that s\he deserved a better grade on an assignment because "I put a great deal of effort into the assignment."

How do you explain that effort is only important to the extent that it produces results?  I often fall back upon the parable of  "the ladder and the wall."  You can dress it up however you want.  I tell a version that places two competing protagonists in a lane enclosed on both sides by tall walls.  The Ruler has placed something of great value - again your choice - behind one wall. The task is to find the treasure, and the competitor who does so will win the treasure. Both competitors begin to build ladders.  One builds a very strong and well-designed ladder, almost a stairwell, leaning against one wall.  The other simply cuts notches into a slender tree trunk.  The second competitor swiftly leans the tree trunk against the same wall as the slowly growing stairwell, scampers up, sees nothing, scampers down, shifts the tree trunk to the other wall, scampers up and claims the prize.

The defeated competitor claims the competition was unfair.  S/he claims that s/he should have been declared the winner as s/he had produced a far superior ladder. A claim to which the Ruler responds "it doesn't matter how good your ladder is if you lean it up against the wrong wall."  I hope the student can make the leap to the idea that effort is meaningless unless it is employed to accomplish the task.  Once we reach the university level we no longer grade on "effort" or "intent," we evaluate results - who found the treasure?  And finding the treasure is usually closely tied to a thoughtful application of the notion that "form follows function."

The last couple of weeks have reminded me how easy it is to let that vital relationship between form and function get out of balance.  In our classroom relationship the function is education.  My job is to provide you with the content germane to the course in a context that helps you absorb and understand the content.  The form in which that pedagogical function unfolds is, and always has been, constantly shifting - from lectures under trees to slate tablets, to computers, to tablet computers and smartphones.  But the idea is always that pedagogical form follows educational function

In the 21st century, in countries whose communication systems are predominantly digital, education is increasingly being conducted in virtual environments.  Those environments are commonly referred to as Learning Management Systems, or LMSs.  You have probably experienced a number of them like Blackboard or Vista.  Moodle is the most widely supported LMS here on our campus, and mediasite is one of several systems supported on campus that allow for the asynchronous capture and distribution of both video and audio content.  I mention those two because, as you now know, they are the two systems upon which I depend most heavily - and both of which developed significant glitches over the semester break.

"Fixing" those glitches was complicated, in our classes, by medical issues that prevent me from coming to campus.  Maybe it was that additional anomaly that distracted me, but I finally realized over the last few days that I had become obsessed with making the software and hardware work.  I knew what the various LMSs were capable of and for some reason it became important to make them do what I knew they were capable of doing - even if that got in the way of actually teaching the content.  I had fallen into the trap of trying to force a function into forms that were - for the moment at least - inappropriate for the pedagogical tasks for which I had always used them.  I knew that Moodle and Mediasite were usually good ladders - and for some reason I insisted on slamming them up against a wall where they no longer fit.

I have no doubt that once I am allowed to again go visit my  support folks over on campus, we will discover the new "improvements" that currently make my old tools more hamper than helper.  We will figure how to once again manifest the notion that form follows function. Until then I need to remember that education is the function and I need to stretch the gray matter a bit more creatively to discover the form best suited to that function in my current situation. I need to remember that, no matter how awesome the ladder, you get no credit if you lean it up against the wrong wall.