TITLE: Teaching as Subversive Inactivity AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 18, 2005 9:37 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Two enjoyable talks in one week -- a treat! On Tuesday, I went to the 2005 CHFA Faculty Excellence Award lecture. (CHFA is UNI's College of Humanities and Fine Arts.) The winner of the award was Roy Behrens, whose name long-time readers of this blog may recognize from past entries on a non-software patterns of design and 13 Books. Roy is a graphic arts professor at my university, and his talk reflected both his expertise in design and the style that contributed to his winning an award for faculty excellence. He didn't use PowerPoint in that stultifying bullet-point way that has afflicted the science and technology for the last decade or more... They used high-resolution images of creative works and audio to create a show that amplified his words. They also demonstrated a wonderful sense of "visual wit". The title of the talk was teaching as a SUBVERSIVE INACTIVITY: a miscellany, in homage to Neil Postman's famous book. When he was asked to give this talk, he wondered what he should talk about -- how to teach for 34 years without burning out? He decided to share how his teaching style has evolved away from being the center of attention in the classroom toward giving students the chance to learn. The talk opened with pivotal selections from works that contributed to his view on teaching. My favorite from the bunch came from "The Cult of the Fact" by Liam Hudson, a British psychologist: The goal of the teacher is to
... transmit an intellectual tradition of gusto, and instill loyalty to it, ...
Behrens characterized his approach to teaching in terms of Csikszentmihalyi's model of Flow: creativity and productivity happen when the students' skills are within just the right range of the challenges given to them.
(After seeing this talk, I'm almost afraid to use my homely line art in a discussion of it. Roy's images were so much better!) He called this his "Goldilocks Model", the attempt to create an environment for students that maximizes their chance to get into flow. What followed was a collage of images and ideas. I enjoyed them all. Here are three key points about teaching and learning from the talk. Aesthetic and Anesthetic What Csikszentmihalyi calls flow is roughly comparable to what we have historically called "aesthetic". And in its etymological roots, the antonym of 'aesthetic' is anesthetic. What an interesting juxtaposition in our modern language! In what ways can the atmosphere of our classrooms be anesthetic?
extreme similarity ... HUMDRUM ... monotony
extreme difference ... HODGEPODGE ... mayhem
We often think of boredom as a teaching anesthetic, but it's useful to trace this back to the possibility that the boredom results from a lack of challenge. Even more important is to remember that too much challenge, too much activity, what amounts to too much distraction also serves as an anesthetic. People tend to tune out when they are overstimulated, as a coping mechanism. I am guessing that when I bore students the most, it's more likely to be from a mayhem of ideas than a monotony. ("Let's sneak in one more idea...) Behrens is a scholar of patterns, and he has found it useful to teach students patterns -- linguistic and visual -- suitable to their level of development, and then turn them lose in the world. Knowing the patterns changes our vision; we see the world in a new way, as an interplay of patterns. Through patterns, students see style and begin to develop their own. 'Style' is often maligned these days as superficial, but the idea of style is essential to understanding designs and thinking about creating. That said, style doesn't determine quality. One can find quality in every genre of music, of painting. There is something deeper than style. Teaching our principles of programming languages course this semester as I am, I hope that my students are coming to understand this. We can appreciate beautiful object-oriented programs, beautiful functional programs, beautiful logic programs, and beautiful procedural programs. Creativity as Postmodern Behrens didn't use "postmodern", but that's my shorthand description of his idea, in reference to ideas like the scrapheap challenge. During the talk, Behrens several times quoted Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation. Here's one:
The creative process is an "unlikely marriage of cabbages and kings -- of previously unrelated frames of reference or universes of discourse -- whose union will solve the previously insoluble problem." -- Koestler
Koestler's "cabbages and kings" is an allusion to a nonsense poem in Alice in Wonderland. (Remember what Alan Perlis said about "Alice": The best book on programming for the layman ...; but that's because it's the best book on anything for the layman.") Koestler uses the phrase because Carroll's nonsense poem is just the sort of collage of mismatched ideas that can, in his view, give rise to creativity. Humans don't create anything new. They assemble ideas from different contexts to make something different. Creativity is a bisociation, a "sort crossing", as opposed to analytic intelligence, which is an association, a "sort-matching". We have to give students the raw material they need to mix and match, to explore new combinations. That is why computer science students should learn lots of different programming languages -- the more different, the better! They should study lots of different ideas, even in courses that are not their primary interest: database, operating systems, compilers, theory, AI, ... That's how we create the rich sea of possibilities from which new ideas are born. Problems, Not Solutions If we train them to respond to problems, what happens when the problem giver goes away? Students need to learn to find and create problems! In his early years, Behrens feared giving students examples of what he wanted, at the risk of "limiting" their creativity to what they had seen. But examples are critical, because they, too, give students the raw material they need to create. His approach now is to give students interesting and open problems, themes on which to work. Critique their products and ideas, frequently and openly. But don't sit by their sides while they do things. Let them explore. Sometimes we in CS tend hold students' hands too much, and the result is often to turn what is fun and creative into tedious drudgery. I'm beginning to think that one of the insidious ingredients in students' flagging interest in CS and programming is that we have taken the intellectual challenge out of learning to program and replaced it with lots of explanation, lots of text talking about technical details. Maybe our reasons for doing so seemed on the mark at the time -- I mean, C++ and Java are pretty complex -- but the unintended side effects have been disastrous. ---- I greatly enjoyed this talk. One other good thing came out of the evening: after 13 years working on the same campus, I finally met Roy, and we had a nice chat about some ideas at the intersection of our interests. This won't be the last time we cross paths this year; I hope to present a paper at his conference Camouflage: Art, Science and Popular Culture conference, on the topic of steganography. -----