Monthly Archives: July 2007

But you Didn’t

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My sister is an artist, and I remember her telling me the standard line they use in reaction to the ultimately least helpful criticism a piece of art can get: “Well, I could have done that!” Yeah, but you didn’t.

I remember the first time I heard her say it; I was 18, she had just finished her first year of her BFA program at Queen’s University in Kingston, and I was visiting her in her summer digs. (Incidentally, that was also the summer I read Maus. There’s really nothing quite like those hours you spend completely sucked into a great piece of literature, is there!) Yeah, but you didn’t. I got her point at the time, on some level, but I think now I get it quite a bit more.

Art isn’t about skill. And that’s what those people are expecting when they say that; art should be something that the average guy on the street can’t concieve of producing on his own. He want to look at a piece of art and be awed. The easiest way to be awed by something is to look behind the curtain and see who’s pulling the strings. If you can’t see the strings, and can’t even get a look behind the curtain, there’s a level of the magic that remains. You can be in awe of someone’s technical skill. That’s easy. And i guess it’s easy to stop there and let the definition of art rest.

But what my sister said is that it’s not about that. The skill isn’t the point. The ideas are the point. The creativity. Saying something, doing something, producing something so surprising and unique that it hasn’t been done before, ideas that haven’t been thought before. I don’t know my artists all that well, but that fellow who put a toilet in a room as an installation: he was the first one to think of doing that. He’s expressing that every day objects are art as well, he’s taking something ordinary and humble out of its context and forcing you to think about it in a new way. Those are the things that can only be art once; the first time someone thinks to do it. After that it’s just derivitive. “But I could have done that.” Yeah, but you didn’t. And you can stand there and be scornful, thinking, what skill was involved here that’s so special, what skill is being demonstrated that make this piece of art worth untold millions of dollars? But that would be missing the point. That’s the tyranny of skillfulness. The point is the newness, and once it’s done it can’t be new again.

And then I think of artists like Van Gogh, who created things that his peers had nothing by criticism for. Paradigm shifters. The rest of us stand on the shoulders of giants; as a culture, we need to move incrementally from one idea to the next. We don’t manage radical change of ideas well. We need to be introduced to things slowly. For the vast majority of us, truly unique, paradigm-shifting ideas cannot even be birthed in our brains; we are too stuck in the hegemony of the status quo, too utterly born into the water of this culture that we can’t even imagine what lies beyond it. We can’t even consider that there is a “beyond” in the first place. That’s survival, that’s living in the real world. Is it physiological? Can we only progress so far in a lifetime? It you picked up a medieval man and dropped him in Times Square, could he learn to make sense of it, or is he shackled to the Great Chain of Being so much that his brain can’t make the necessary leaps? It seems fairly clear that, in general, people don’t like change. When we first look at a thing, or think a brand new thought, it seems ugly. Once we feel around the edges of it and understand what it is, why it’s wonderful, what it brings us, then we can see the beauty of it.

Once in a while, when I’m looking around at the world, I think about the fact that the very concept of seeing is flawed. We like this idea that we see things as they are, that there is real truth in what we see. But we don’t “see” objects and things, do we? We only see how light reflects off them. We see the particular way that light moves, and we wring information from it. No different, really, from echo-location; just using different senses. In medieval medicine, it was believed that you could get sick if someone looked at you, because looking at a thing meant that invisible tenacles reached out from your eyes and touched the thing you had your eyes locked on. Looking at a person, in that context, is a profoundly intimate and possibly dangerous experience. And in many ways they were right; looking at a thing isn’t nearly as clear cut as it seems to be. It could have been our noses that came to dominate, and we would “see” the colours of things based on how they smell.

And I guess we should feel awe about that too.

I can’t stop coughing, and this is what I came up with to occupy my head.

Power, Control, and Instruction

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I’ve been working on a paper for AoIR‘s Second Life Workshop in October, revisiting the issues and challenges we faced in a text-based virtual world and the solutions we developed to wrestle with them. One of the things that’s been so surprising abotu Second Life is how familiar it felt when I first walked in; no matter how shiny the technology seems to become, it remains fairly similiar to the old text-based worlds in terms of useability and structure. And we seem to still be addressing the exact same issues. But looking at our challenges and solutions (former and current) brings home to me one of the central elements of education: power and control.

Power is one of those perennial issues; you can try to weed it out of your classroom, but its shoots are hardy and wiggle their way into all kinds of unexpected nooks and crannies. Power is written into the layout of the furniture, the structure of assessment and evaluation, the lecture style of instruction, and deep into the minds of students who have had a lifetime of being drilled in its norms and expectations. Even in a perfectly Marxist, radical classroom, where the instructor wears only jeans and a ratty t-shirt and regularly challenges his own authority, where every other privilege and dominant hierarchy has been unpacked and tossed out the window, the simple student/instructor power structure remains. Teachers have more power than they often seem to recognize. Maybe you get used to it after a while, and it becomes something you only notice in its absence.

There are two perspectives you can take on power and control in education, as far as I can tell; you can vow to dismantle it (which, it seems to me, primarily results in instructors dismantling the elements of power they don’t like/can recognize while retaining the parts that they do like/can’t recognize), or accept it and use it thoughtfully, purposefully, and as ethically as possible. The former seems like the right idea, but more and more I’m starting to wonder if the latter isn’t the more successful approach. More pragmatic and less idealized, I suppose, but if your end goal is create an ideal instructional environment where real learning can actually take place (far be it from me to suggest that a teacher can create learning in students, isn’t that yet another form of power and control that’s just assumed?), then maybe the ends justify the means.

In reviewing our old attempts to create classroom environments in a pure-text universe, it seems we spent a lot of time trying to control the speech and movement of students. (Unethical fascist! Micromanaging control freak! shouts the peanut gallery, yes, I can hear you from here, thanks for your input.) A lot of the overwhelm problems we had with students was based in the complete democracy of the space. The democracy of the space is what we love about it, honestly, but it has its upsides and its downsides. When a person speaks in a virtual world, they are no more or less important than any other person in the room; if the instructor gives a series of instructions, but fifteen students pipe up at the same time with playful exclamations, the instructor’s serious words are no more or less noticable, no more or less likely to be read by the rest of the class. When students come into a classroom, sit down and start chatting with each other, they hush when the instructor makes the typical motions that indicate that he is ready to speak. There is a culture of highlighting and adding weight to the words of some over others in a classroom. No matter how communal the instructor feels his classroom is, there is an element of power in his mere presence. There are no such traditions in virtual worlds. This is a good thing; this is also a painful roadblock.

Confronted with students who can’t make out what’s important and not when entering a virtual world (why, it’s all important, and up to you to determine which parts are important to you, says the peanut gallery, yes yes, I know, bear with me for a moment), we developed some tools to give us a hand. The web interface we were using gave all exits from a given room as links in a web window. Students would click on them, not knowing they were moving in and out of the classroom space, and missing half of the conversation. They didn’t mean to do it, they just didn’t know how to manoevre yet. They would get lost, or get confused, or get exasperated. So we built a very simple little tool.

Before we learn that classrooms are spaces with clear power distinctions and rules we have to follow, getting us in a group to do something together is like herding cats. So when we’re small, and out on a field trip to see the dinosaurs in the museum, they have us all hold on to a piece of rope. It shows us the relationships we have to the other students in a very concrete and physical way, and also makes very clear who’s got power and control over us in this situation. (Can we unpack the concept of “control” for a moment to see it’s upsides as well? The person leading us at the front end of the rope knows where she’s going, she’s serving a useful purpose. When we hold on to the rope, we’re doing it because we were told to, but also because we want to; we’re complicit in this power relationship. We want to go see the dinosaurs. We don’t want to get lost. The control is not in the person herself, but in what they have to offer right here and now.) With the rope, we can be safely brought to one place to experience something together; we can avoid the confusion of learning all the steps to a particular place in order to get there. That piece of rope is a particular bit of scaffolding to get us all literally and figuratively from one place to another. It’s a ramp to get us over the big procedural learning curve it would take to get there on our own.

We wrote virtual rope. (Well, by “we” I mean Catspaw.) We needed to get students over that hurdle so that they could see the point of learning how to do it on their own. We took control in order to help students come to grips with the meaning of a space, and then gave it back.

I’m still conflicted about power and control in an instruction/learning situation. I don’t want to restrict what students can and can’t do; I want them to explore and build their own knowledge. I’m conflicted by the fact that sometimes taking power and control by the horns and using it deliberately to show students where the tools are, how to use them, how to get comfortable with them and then dismantling it afterwards has good effects.

I just finished writing about a space within a virtual world where I hacked the script on a room that allows students to talk. I actually removed their ability to speak. I knew there were ethical issues with it when I did it, and remember how cautiously I trod with it, but strangely it was shockingly successful, and didn’t put people off at all. Can we be forgiven for these deliberate grabs for power in an instructional situation if it results in a more engaged and motivated student? (NO! shouts the peanut gallery. Okay, okay, mea culpa.)

Hipster Librarians

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The New York Times has just discovered that librarians are hip and cool. This is hardly news! But they included a few pictures of hot, hip, young librarians, so I thought I’d take a page from their style guide and get a shot of myself in a similar pose. Their image on the left, mine on the right.

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There! I too am a hipster librarian! Seeee?

A Walk down to the Lake

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Today I walked down to the Lake. I moved to Clarkson last August and yet I still had not taken the relatively short walk to see the view of lake Ontario. Mostly this place is a great big burb, and for the most part the lakefront is full of a) old cottages turned into multi-million dollar houses, or b) the petro plant. But I found a nice little spot; perfect for a picnic!

In this picture, you can actually see Toronto across the water, and with the naked eye you can see the CN tower in the top right:

A view of downtown Toronto from my neck of the woods, with the help of a lot fo zoom:

En route to the water (note the lack of sidewalks…do people in these chichi neighbourhoods not walk?):