Learning

Using Seattle Central College as an example.

 
1. The Upper Class – Administrators, heads of departments, Deans
These are the aristocracy. They earn good salaries, experience comfort and respect and job security. Often they can be bad at their job and achieve nothing but remain in charge for years. Few in number. Often the President of the college is just a figurehead with enough political connections to get a high salary with not much responsability. The president is like a fancy hat: It may be on top, but it isn’t in charge. 
 
2. The Middle Class – receptionists, cashiers, office assistants, janitors, security. tenured faculty.
Generally their work is boring but it is utterly secure. In many cases they express a flat, slightly sad or even bitter quality because their jobs are pretty much just about remaining employed. It is the barnacle survival strategy. This group is maybe four or five times the size of the administrators.
 
3. The Oppressed Lower Class – Adjunct faculty
These are often 80% or more of the actual teachers. In any quarter the tenured faculty “feed” first, getting the classes they want. After them is a complicated ranking of seniority and hours worked in the last few quarters and so on. They are called “priority hires” and they are a hierarchy from high to low. The high ranking instructors are often most gifted at playing the internal political games of the department they belong to rather than based on any merit. Almost anyone who becomes tenured is from this group. If a high ranking PH loses a class to under-enrollment he can take a class from a lower PH.

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This is a half-baked theory. It doesn’t suggest any particular role for neurons or other physical aspects of the brain. It is about the workings of the mind. It is primarily concerned with the things we learn how to do.

Imagine yourself…the mind you are as a volume of processing power: As an environment with a certain amount of ability to respond to the world. This software-like volume is a hierarchy made up of entities with different roles to play at different levels.

The smallest increment or unit is a “Mindon” (see: Making up crap, H. Miller). Metaphorically it is like a cell in the body, an atom in matter or a byte of computer memory. It is there not because of evidence pointing to it but simply because it belongs logically within the structure of this theory as the smallest unit of work. For our purposes, it creates the image of a tiny individual operator with a bit of processing power.
A new and unknown task is encountered. For example, learning a musical instrument, casting a fishing line or properly cutting an onion. The brain experiences it as if with a kind of touch in the processing centers naturally assigned to the sense data involved in the task (Motor, optical, etc).

Executive function does a kind of “importance triage” focusing on the sense data and relevant memories. Mindons begin to swarm and cluster around the task creating a complex imaginative prototype or map of the skill and begins measuring and comparing the experience of trying the skill against the map, making edits in the map as more information comes in and also making edits in DOING the task. Heuristics are noted and retained. With time and practice the map, measurements, and comparisons become more accurate, detailed and nuanced. Plateaus and benchmarks are hit and become a bit like a saved version of a game or a file, the starting point next time. Essentially this is a matured and organized group of mindons forming a stable repeatable task.

These coherent, informed collections of mindons I would call “Agents”. Something like playing the guitar wouldn’t involve a single agent but many. I imagine agents in this example being like proper holding, finger pressure, picking and strumming, volume and tuning, etc. Each of these areas would be an agent.

The whole coordinated group functioning together would be an Agency. I could use other names, I could call the agency a program and the agents, modules. The terminology isn’t very important but I’d like to not be completely bound by computer metaphors.

This system is far more fluid and flexible than any computer system. The agents are not limited to one specific agency, once established, I believe they can flow on demand into new situations that call for them. Somewhere in the mental map mentioned above would be a process of looking for existing “off the shelf” agents that could hit the ground running on the new task. For example, if you have an agency for driving a car or playing the guitar then when picking up a Ukulele or sitting in a go-cart the agency isn’t fully applicable but many useful agents flow instantly into the task.

So, mindons group at the behest of executive function, and form educated agents which group as a whole agency; “playing the guitar”. Singing would be an agency too so when playing the guitar AND singing there must exist a kind of Meta-agency that allows parallel processing and two-way feedback.  All of this is playing out in a larger framework where the musician is also processing things like audience reaction, etc.

This suggests an overall environment or community of mindons, agents, agencies and…departments? I’m not crazy about the bureaucratic feel of this metaphor but the hierarchical structure is needed.

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This concept is one of the foundations of what I want to say and I have to succeed in explaining it or much of what follows won’t really be clear. But all by itself, Emergence is a beautiful and fascinating thing and whether or not the rest of my ideas add up, this is a wonderful framework for understanding the world around us. 
 
There are moments in describing it where it seems so simple and straightforward as to be an unnecessary thing to even bring up.  There are other moments of wonder and awe.  Emergence isn’t something I just made up, it’s a technical term from the study of  complex systems. 
 
Complex things are built out of simple things, simple things that gather to a point where something new is revealed by that gathering together. A key point though is that the simple elements individually do not resemble the new thing that exists when they come together. The elements do not suggest the outcome.  

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Meet Your Professors!

All across the United States public college systems have adopted a system of having a tiny minority of full time teachers and an overwhelming majority of part timers (“adjunct” “transient” “contingent” Smell the euphemisms?).

1. We do not receive equal pay for equal work
2. We face teaching caps, limits to how much we CAN work because then we would cross a barrier to a better pay and benefit scale.
3. Many receive no benefits, those who do, lose them if their workload drops from 50% to 49%.
4. We have no job security, quarter to quarter employment is luck and relationships.
5. If we have the bad luck to become unemployed, we receive no unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile of course the college is FULL of administrators, office workers, and support staff all of whom have more security and respect than us. The reason college has become so expensive is that for the last 40 years or so this administrative and office strata has swollen beyond all reason. It simply propagates at the expense of actual teaching and actual teachers. The internal cost cutting has been accomplished entirely at the expense of faculty who have become a legion of temp workers.

And it’s interesting (in an awful way) but there’s a strange class sensibility and “politeness” framing this. They’ll hold “Adjunct Recognition Day” as they did just a few days ago, by order of the Governor no less, where we are offered home baked cookies. If I was to say “Hey these cookies are great but could I have my health insurance back?” Everyone would just look at me like a burped loudly. “Do you have have to bring up such a painful subject?” Always coming from someone whose benefits are unquestioned. 

  1. http://portside.org/2013-10-30/her-own-words-adjuncts-and-academic-labor-force-campus-equity-week-october-28-november-2
  2. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/when-a-college-contracts-adjunctivitis-its-the-students-who-lose/
  3. http://www.forbes.com/sites/noodleeducation/2015/05/28/more-than-half-of-college-faculty-are-adjuncts-should-you-care/
  4. http://college.usatoday.com/2014/07/17/underpaid-and-overworked-adjunct-professors-share-their-stories/

 

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I ran a couple of photos through Google’s Deep Dream software. It attempts to recognize patterns using a buttload of heuristics about characteristics that would indicate various things; buildings, animals, landscapes,etc.

It can be sort of gently psychedelic and beautiful or if you turn the levels up a bit frankly horrifying. In its nicer form It reminds me of things I’ve seen when responsibly ingesting socially acceptable pharmaceuticals…or something. This feels more like what I imagine schizophrenia might be like. Here’s the worst before and after ever.

In an interesting way this is a computer emulating the very human trait of constantly seeing things in the world around them that are mental projections. Like “Doesn’t that cloud look like a bunny attacking Abe Lincoln?” This trait is keyed into our ability to recognize anything but also to our ability to recognize types of things. Like recognizing a letter of the alphabet in a strange distorted font. Or like recognizing a building as a bank or a school without seeing a sign. It’s probably also related to the neurological blinders we develop with which we see exactly what we expect to see and don’t see anything we don’t expect to see.

The role this plays in scientific discovery seems clear cut to me. The role this plays in various kinds of bigotry and blind prejudice seems clear too.  Continue reading

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Built to fail

As a software teacher/trainer I am amazed by something. Every company and institution in the US apparently has the budget to subsidize ~65% of their employees being shit with computing…forever… but only a few of them can scrape a budget together for training. And when they do, it’s designed by middle management in a way that almost always misses the actual problem in favor of some oversimplified guess about what is wrong.

Whenever I have taught corporate groups I sense about a dozen issues other than the one I am there to teach going unaddressed. And if I try to get at those problems I’ll be seen as not teaching the right subject.

Usually, power users are mixed into the same class as the weakest users. The result is that the material will be wrong for part of the group no matter what… unless you teach “right down the middle” in which case it might be right for nobody. Also, the power users are forced to sit through such basic material that it wears out their goodwill and\or the “baby” users sit through advanced material that makes them feel stupid and hopeless. All of this crystalizes the idea of training as ineffective in the mind of management.

To get it right, do better research on the problem you are fixing.

  1. Don’t be superficial or complacent about imagining what the problem really is. Details matter.
  2. Identify your “power users” and find out what they need to know and why.
  3. While you’ve got them, ask what they consider to be the baseline skillset for the software in question in the context of this office. Compare notes on these assessments.
  4. Ask them (and any IT support people) what problems the focus group of employees seem to get stuck on. The power users and IT staff get hit up regularly for help and they have a lot more data points than you will get by asking the group what they need.
  5. The group doesn’t really know what it needs. The problem is concealed in the mist above their comfort zone.
  6. If it is possible to have the trainer come in for a chat with some representative students ahead of time, they will be able to target the actual need far better.
  7. “But the cost!” It’s going to be expensive either way. Do you prefer an expensive success or an expensive failure? Besides, if you do this correctly you will be saving real money and increasing real efficiency. Doing it wrong is mismanagement.
  8. Consider a break with form. If the trainer is open to it, propose working with smaller groups with a shared problem and consider doing this in the area where the work is done rather than a classroom. The trainer will almost always spot problems and growing out of local issues which would not come up in a classroom.

 

 

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