Teaching

There is a rather famous story about moths that you might well have encountered as a student. The class would have been discussing evolutionary theory.

The common form of peppered moth had a pale coloration suited to hiding on the bark of light-colored tree trunks. This camouflage apparently enabled it to avoid being eaten by birds. Then, in 1848 a specimen with black wings turned up, in the industrial city of Manchester, England. By the end of the 19th century, the dark peppered moth was everywhere, and the paler, mottled version had vanished, becoming virtually extinct.

This was perhaps the first clear instance of human behavior increasing environmental pressure on local species and observers noting and following it. The industrial revolution roared up to speed and the universal use of coal for heating and industrial production had blackened skies and forests. An editorial in an issue of Nature quotes an 1851 railroad guide to the English industrial midlands: “The pleasant green of pastures is almost unknown, the streams, in which no fishes swim, are black and unwholesome…the few trees are stunted and blasted.” Continue reading

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  1. Hi, first of all, I’m incredibly sorry, I knew I had to leave by 2 pm to get here but my sandwich burned and I didn’t notice until the apartment was full of smoke. I couldn’t leave it for my roommates like that so I had to open all the windows and flap a beach towel everywhere to make it a little better. Anyway, thank you for understanding.
  2. As a program note, I did see that this was to be a talk with a slide presentation but somehow I missed the thing about being in PowerPoint so a slight format change will require me to hook up my slide projector. It should only take a couple of minutes and maybe one or two of you could help me move the computer cart to a safe place and find like a table or desk that’s the right height for my projector?
  3. I’m sure you can relate, I mean I’m only human but last week, which I admit would have been the ideal time to be working on this, it was like every time I sat down to get started I’d get just crazy sleepy, like can’t keep my head upright, sleepy. It was insane, then as it got closer to this week I found myself kind of having trouble thinking about it and every time I’d try I’d get this sort of anxiety stomach ache. I did manage to get some stuff done though like pick up my bedroom and throw away the old stuff in the fridge. It’s kind of a good feeling. Then night before last my friend had this thing he wanted me to go to so that only left me last night to pull this together.
  4. In that light, I think it holds up pretty well. Although full disclosure, I thought the book we had to talk about was kind of up to us so I picked “Cujo”, by the writer Steven King because I read it last Summer. I’m sorry I didn’t do “Of Mice and Men” but at least this is an animal and people story too.
  5. If I may just say so, turning web pictures into projector slides is just insanely expensive, especially a rush job. Like you would not believe how much these cost my friend. So my first slide is these awesome St. Bernard puppies. Can you even believe how cute they are? And look how big the mom is in comparison! Actually these were the ones that showed up first in image search and there were a ton of this same bunch of puppies doing different stuff although it’s not super obvious that it’s real different, because the background doesn’t change.
  6. So I think the book Cujo by the writer Steven King is really good and exciting. Question 1 says to talk about the conflict at the heart of the story so I guess the conflict is between this huge killer dog and the people.
  7. Question 2 asks me to describe underlying issues that shape the story and I guess that would be like rabies, because everything would have been OK without the rabies.
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In every class I teach, the medium is the PC. In every class I teach there is at least one student who still sucks at computing. I applaud them being game enough to choose the encounter, because it’s clearly a struggle. The problem is that almost all of these students carry their downfall into the room with them and ultimately feel no closer to their goal, or only a touch closer. 

What these students lack is Fluency. Computer Fluency is the constellation of core skills that comfortable users take for granted as a foundation into every computer task they approach. More and more, beginning computer classes are disappearing, not because they are unneeded but because curriculum planners see no market for them. Only truly humble students choose these classes and that’s too small a market to succeed. 

Here’s the real problem. Because fluency underlies all software use, if a person lacks fluency it doesn’t matter what computer course they choose, THAT CLASS will become a beginning computer class. It will just be a terrible choice for a beginning computer class. The center of gravity of that class dips to meet the skill deficit of these students. I have taught web design classes where people ask how many times to click an icon and don’t know the difference between a folder and a file. In class I am positive and encouraging but inside I’m thinking “I am so sorry you wasted your money on this class.” Because that student is probably NEVER going to get beyond their deficit to embrace the intended curriculum.  Continue reading

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When I’m teaching I can feel a change take place when a magic number of students is present. Before that, I am just talking to individuals one on one. When that critical mass is reached I can become a different person, the teacher, rather than just myself. 3 is apparently too few, it doesn’t make the change occur. 4 is at the edge, as is five. but somewhere in there, I can enter a state other than my normal mind. It is a remembering, performing, adapting and extemporizing mind. It’s a flow state for me and it is inaccessible when I am alone. And I enjoy it very much. But a similar effect happens to the class itself. With enough people and with a basic level of receptivity there is a tipping point for them as well where they become somehow attuned to a common frequency and it is as if we are a kind of energy flow machine where I give them energy in the form of confidence, good organization and information and their attention and enthusiasm gives energy back to me that absolutely heightens my delivery. There is a magic to the internal feeling for the exchange which is basic to its success. If students come to class with the idea that this is all drudgery, they pull me down with them. They hold onto my ankles and prevent take off. I can feel the lifeless lack of response and my job becomes harder. I am doing all the lifting and at the end I am not happy and energized, I am drained and flat.

This highly specific sort of exchange has a thousand parallels in the rest of our lives. Every two people when they meet have an exchange somewhat similar to this one. The magic of interpersonal chemistry obviously decides much of what happens next but the receiving of energy and flowing it back is basic to every encounter. I have certainly noticed that the sweetness and energy of other people seem to have a great deal to do with how I offer them energy and bounce back theirs. Some days the world seems harsh and grubby and no love or friendship seems able to jump the gap but then, on a sweet high energy day when I am open to people and taking them in with an open spirit, incredible things seem possible and on these days it seems obvious and easy. Obviously, something like my teaching experience seems to happen at shows and concerts and speeches. It seems to me that this is one of the points that we never properly own and take responsibility for: How much we determine the tone of everything that happens, how much energy and engagement really matter. We may be just one charged particle but if we are near a few others, amazing things can happen.

the-third-mind

A third mind is created when any two meet; this mind talks to itself, finds a mood, an energy, a temperament, a personality; a self. This mind if excitement and energy are present, can consider amazing things, can tinker with subtleties and complexity. As the two-part, this mind disintegrates though it can be remembered with love or disgust or disinterest by its agents. It is a social molecule. As the number of people meeting rises, the new mind comes into being with different energies possible. Certain kinds of projects and tasks can be energized by small groups in a way that feels supernatural. Complexity is still possible with small groups. The excitement of an ensemble working to put on a show or start a business can be electric. There is often a feeling of “organizing” of becoming limbs and organs specializing and working in concert with the virtual body. Of course, many meetings create minds which are inert or dull or suspicious and sour. It’s simply that SOME mind will emerge at the moment of engagement. The energy that happens when motivated minds meet, this third mind, or these “virtual creature” minds can be enormously powerful but the power is essentially amoral. The power will flow if the “batteries” are present. If the mind is engineering reform or art or charity or terrorism…the energy is there.

Emergent human social behavior is not all good and positive. This energy can go dark and bloody in any mob. Hutus and Tutsis would not have massacred each other without this electric build up and overflow. The Nazis couldn’t have existed without it. When a demonstration becomes a riot it is this.

One of the scariest days of my life was in San Francisco after the 49ers won the Superbowl. The streets were full of people celebrating and in a moment that felt strangely like clouds covering the sun, the mood twisted. There were transitional moments: people shouting words of happiness that sounded oddly angry, people looking a little too hard to see if you were celebrating too. At this moment it was like they were looking for outsiders, looking for something to push back against. Soon things tipped and it was like wild animals except that wild animals do nothing like this. It was like a torrent of human craziness and anger, feeding on itself and igniting like flammable gas. And all because “We won!”. Except not really. I don’t think it had anything specific to do with the winning, except that there was a kind of build-up of a charge. A critical mass of charged up, energized humans bumped into each other like pressurized molecules. This is why large gatherings of people always have a risk component and why well planned large events feature effective guidance of group energy, logistics management, and at least a skeleton of police exuding the “remain orderly” pheromone. It’s just a guess but I bet losing teams have way fewer fan riots than winning teams.

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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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A talented and esteemed lecturer in early childhood education has resigned from teaching at Yale because an email she wrote suggesting a little flexibility about Halloween costumes resulted in an inferno of moral indignation and demands for her (and her husband) to be fired by the college. (Demands by the students of course).

Here is the intolerable message:

“This year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween,” she wrote. While noting that she did not wish to “trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community,” Christakis went on to question the imposition of “standards and motives” on others as well as the feasibility of agreeing on how to avoid offense. “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” she asked. “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”

Even -asking- the profoundly politically correct to consider being a little more relaxed results in a take no prisoners purge of the impure. Left wing. Read your history. You do this. Stop.

The Reign of Terror | The Great Purge | The Cultural Revolution | The Killing Fields

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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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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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