31 December 2011

Items to share (31 December)

  •  Tyler Cowen on stories (transcript of TEDx talk) Kind of interesting talk on the limitations of story construction as a way of thinking, but offered with apparently little grounding in the substantial literature apart from Booker, 2005* (which is odd given Cowen's reputation as a voracious reader), so just an introduction. You can watch the video here, but it is out of sync so it is almost unwatchable.
  • The psychologists' vow. For good measure, external examiners also take a vow to express concern over the quality of referencing...

* Booker C (2005) The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories London; Continuum

29 December 2011

On having a hinterland

This may be a rather confused post: it is prompted by the season and its religious expression, without being particularly religious in content. It is also full of sweeping generalisations: I've left them like that because to qualify them would make the argument, such as it is, even less coherent than it is already.

On Christmas Eve I went as usual to Midnight Communion at a local (fairly high) Anglican church. I gave up on our actual parish church some time ago, because of its minimalist evangelical one-dimensional logocentrism--there is a point to this, I'm not merely being rude!

The church I attended had sung responses, and anthems from the choir as well as hymns, and rich vestments, and candles and even incense. It offered a multi-layered experience, at whatever level one wanted to take it--artistic, cultural, social or even "spiritual". (I'm not going to refer to "worship"--it is too pre-emptive a term in this context).

Two initial points: First, the evangelical church, with a faith centred on propositional assent to a creed, would not like such a multi-layered experience, to which different participants brought different backgrounds and commitments and from which they also took different things. Such a church prefers to sing in unison, or parallel. Ambiguity is not highly valued.*

It is highly unlikely that the congregation at the church I attended shared an articulated belief system in the same way as their more evangelical brethren*. The multiple layers of meaning are more flexible and tolerant than those which rely so heavily on an intellectual assent to the propositions of a creed.

That, however, poses the question what layers which participants at the service I attended had access to.  And of course what significance they would have attributed to what they were witnessing; some might readily see the sumptuous vestments as offensive to the ideal of poverty propagated by Jesus, while for others those vestments may represent an offering of the very best materials and craft skills--anything less would be unworthy of their high purpose. For some, familiar with the ecclesiastical calendar, the colours of those vestments and of the altar-cloths, will be redolent with meaning--but probably completely arbitrary to most of us.

There were quite a few younger people present, and I wondered what they were making of the music, the chant, the solemnity, the symbolism, the arcane and archaic language (e.g. "...a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction,") --and even I had to admit that I didn't really understand a word of the sermon. But they come from a completely different world, or rather worlds.

So much of our ability to understand and feel at home in a culture rests on taken-for-granted understandings and allusions and "common sense" which needs no explanation. But it does need commonality, and I'm beginning to wonder whether that common foundation of shared experience and understanding is being eroded by the speed of change and the personalisation of technology.

(Incidentally, see the latest up-date of  "The Visions of Students Today" 2011 remix and the latest versions of Beloit College's "Mindset List")

In all the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible (although everyone now refers to it as the "King James version"), there have been many comments about how much we owe to it for common phrases, and characters. See, for example, here.
...the King James Bible version swept round the globe in school assemblies, far flung churches, remotely stationed battalions ...it was the Book of the community of English speaking peoples. [...]
New words - we use them still: "scapegoat", "let there be light", "the powers that be", "my brother's keeper", "filthy lucre", "fight the good fight", "sick unto death", "flowing with milk and honey", "the apple of his eye", "a man after his own heart", "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak", "signs of the times", "ye of little faith", "eat drink and be merry", "broken hearted", "clear eyed". And hundreds more: "fishermen", "landlady", "sea-shore", "stumbling block", "taskmaster", "two-edged", "viper", "zealous" and even "Jehovah" and "Passover" come into English through Tyndale. "Beautiful", a word which has meant only human beauty, was greatly widened by Tyndale, as were many others. [From here]
How many people now have access to that range of reference and connotation, as the emphasis turns to functionality and clarity and simplicity, even in biblical language?

More broadly, of course, the emphasis in education is firmly on utility and measurable outcomes and "impact"; in relation to higher education there is a defensive debate in which the arts and humanities are increasingly being called upon (or their advocates feel that they are increasingly being called upon) to justify their existence, see for example Matthew Reisz here, Roger Lister here, and--with particular reference to the religious tradition--Eduardo de la Fuente here.

Things have moved on since I started teaching. In the late 'sixties I was appointed to teach "Liberal Studies" in a technical college. The very existence of the subject and its requirement as a part of technical and vocational courses testified to the assumption that cultural, social and even political issues could not be neglected in a modern educational system. As Bailey and Unwin (2008) document, the tide of humanism ebbed in the '70s, and the idea that it was possible for all young people to be liberally educated was eventually abandoned. Certainly I personally gave up on it and moved into more vocational areas--the heirs of Liberal Studies in technical education now are termed "functional skills", which in itself shows how things have changed. But perhaps the mistake was to believe that the desired appreciation of culture and history and society had to come through individuals. As Mary Beard put it just a few days ago at rather a higher level (my emphasis):
The important cultural point is that some people should have read Virgil and Dante. To put it another way, the overall strength of the classics is not to be measured by exactly how many young people know Latin and Greek from high school or university. It is better measured by asking how many believe that there should be people in the world who do know Latin and Greek, how many people think that there is an expertise in that worth taking seriously—and ultimately paying for.  [Mary Beard, here]
The cumulative heritage of sensibility (wow! How's that for pomposity?) resides in the community rather than individuals...

But back to the beginning. These are in part my own banal reflections, but in the religious context they are both stimulated and extended by this exemplary piece, beside which I hesitate to place my fatuous musings:
The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible,  by Marilynne Robinson. Of which Bryan Appleyard says:
"Hot damn, I thought, I must blog on this. But then I read it again and, well, what more is there to be said? So just read it and weep with gratitude for Marilynne, the New York Times, for the Bible, for all the wonders of the religious imagination and with pity for those poor militant atheists."

I covered some of the same points from a different starting point in this earlier post.

* As I write this, I am reminded of precisely this issue emerging from my research for my dissertation in the sociology of religion (Dependence and the Practice of Religion unpublished M.Litt thesis, University of Lancaster 1974) and some of the research which contributed to it (Walker A G and Atherton J S (1971) "An Easter Pentecostal Convention; the successful management of a 'time of blessing'" Sociological Review vol 19 No 3 pp. 367-387)

And here is a different take from a similar starting point, which illuminatesa similar theme... On Going to Church on Christmas Morning December 27, 2011, by Michael Ruse

Bailey B and Unwin L (2008) "Fostering ‘habits of reflection, independent study and free inquiry’: an analysis of the short-lived phenomenon of General/Liberal Studies in English vocational education and training" Journal of Vocational Education and Training Vol. 60, No. 1, pp. 61–74

24 December 2011

Items to share (24 December)

  • Miracles and the Historians. It's Christmas, so this post is apposite (although I don't find it entirely satisfactory) but I've shared it as much because of who it is by; Peter Berger. Yes, that Peter Berger, now 82, author of Invitation to Sociology (1963), a slim volume that probably introduced more people to sociology than any other text, and co-author with Thomas Luckmann of The Social Construction of Reality (1966) --one of the most influential works of sociological theory ever. His blog is invariably worth reading. 
  • Extraordinary, beautiful time-lapse video of  Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Manhattan, Chicago --and wilderness

17 December 2011

Items to share (17 December)

    • Here's another one trying to get a paper published, replicating a now-famous study (Bem, 2011) on predicting the future, but contesting the findings.

    16 December 2011

    On refereeing

    I'm not sure why I haven't bothered to comment on this before; but I have just received yet another peremptory demand to referee an article for an academic journal. It came via boiler-plate email, demanding a report within 30 days, or that I go to a website to excuse myself...

    It creeps up on us. I remember, 30-odd years ago, how flattered I was to be asked to review an article for a journal--and to be paid for it. In 1978, I received £25.00, for reviewing one such article. How things have changed!

    Let's be clear. The "request" I received has nothing to do with the journal itself. It is entirely a manipulative bluff on the part of publishers who have cornered the market in journals, with an amazing business model:
    • The content is provided for free.
    • Publishers may even demand that authors or their institutions pay for publication, at the rate of hundreds of dollars per page.
    • The editors work for free
    • As do the editorial boards
    • And the referees
    • And increasingly the journals are not even printed in hard copy
    • And subscriptions are bundled together so that libraries which want just a few useful ones are compelled to accept a lot of dross as well--and to pay for it. At least they no longer have to find shelf space for it.
    He's writing in the context of academic publishing in science, but David Colquhoun has a coruscating expose of the scam here: scroll down to the "Extortionate cost of publishing" sub-head for the most relevant stuff.
    • Be amazed at how much just one university (UCL) is paying these publishers! And then...
    • Discover how little most journals are read--in many cases not at all.
    George Monbiot made similar points in the Guardian here.

    It occurs to me that the situation makes a nonsense of any attempt to incorporate "impact" as a factor in evaluating research within the "Research Excellence Framework" (the notorious new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions). 

    I'm really glad I am no longer in the rat-race--going to enormous lengths to produce article no-one will read. My stuff is not peer-reviewed pre-publication (although I get plenty of feedback afterwards) but it reaches a lot more people (more than the median annual usage of the Elsevier journals taken by UCL, every day). But the cartoon minutes of the panel DC attended (brilliant idea, incidentally) sum it up;

    Of course there is a radical alternative--it addresses most of the problems, but doesn't actually publish anything...

    15 December 2011

    On the wisdom of the Zuni

    In her classic Patterns of Culture (1934), Ruth Benedict discusses the "apollonian" culture of the Zuni pueblo native Americans of New Mexico. I was particularly struck by their principle (which I caricature for effect) that the only disqualification for public office is to seek it.

    I've just been to the retirement celebration of a former colleague at another university. It was a very pleasant event, and it is really grossly unfair to her, and the respect and affection in which she is held by her colleagues and peers, to concentrate on one aspect of it which grated. Nevertheless...

    I refer to the presence and manner of one very senior member of the university (PVC), who came late, after the speeches and the presentation (no, not a PowerPoint) of gifts and tokens of appreciation. I happened to be chatting to my former colleague at the time. The PVC arrived, excused himself perfunctorily, and engaged her in conversation talked to her about Optical Mark Readers, or OMRs, as he referred to them throughout (it took me a while to catch up). It had evidently not occurred to him that someone who is about to leave the university at the end of next week might not be able to care less about how out-dated the OMR software is. Nor that she was missing out on farewells from friends and colleagues who did not want to barge in on her "conversation" with a VIP...

    The gentleman in question is clearly a self-serving boorish person. He was however, very skilled at communicating his own appreciation of his talents and meteoric rise to his present rank in a few seconds... "But that's enough about me! Let's talk about me!"

    I suspect it was ever thus. The (ideal-type) university, wrapped in mythic collegiality, has been in denial about ambition for ever. Cornford's wonderfully waspish Microcosmographia Academica (1908) testifies to that as well as a string of novels from Cannan and Snow to Lodge and beyond. But as Ginsberg argues, the trend has accelerated over the last twenty or so years, on both sides of the pond.

    I was coming to believe that the only effective prophylactic is the Zuni principle.

    But I got home to watch "Rev" with the creepy archdeacon protesting "nolo episcopare" a little too much. Sorry, Zuni, the creeps are ahead of you!

    But how about a Zuniversity?

    09 December 2011

    Items to Share (10 December)

    • Race And Intelligence: A Wrap from Andrew Sullivan; I don't claim to have read it all, but this is the kind of conversation which only a popular, moderated blog can deliver.
    • More on the Khan Academy; getting behind the scenes and reporting on how analysts are drawing on their finance backgrounds to evaluate the effectiveness of the programmes. 
    • Interesting introduction to the work of Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist who studies morality, as much as possible without preconceptions. I haven't read his latest, The Righteous Mind; why good people are divided by politics and religion, but I did enjoy his 2006 offering The Happiness Hypothesis; putting ancient wisdom and philosophy to the test of modern science (Arrow Books).

    08 December 2011

    On the turning of the learning styles tide

    I would normally post a link under "Items to share", but this article and its comments is worthy of a post of its own:
    The very title is interesting; a few years ago, it would have implied that the "research" was pointing clearly in favour of learning styles--but read the article and you will see that it argues in exactly the opposite direction.

    There are one or two unexplained abbreviations:
    • "ISPI" is International Society for Performance Improvement
    • "ATI" is--at a guess--Analysis of Training Interaction or something similar. (9.12.11: David Stone puts me right--it's Aptitude-Treatment Interaction)
    New readers start here!

    04 December 2011

    On re-working presentations...

    I have just been re-working a presentation from a couple of weeks ago to put out on the net as support material for the session I used it for. As usual it has taken much longer than I had intended. Good! The delay has helped me to evaluate some parts of the argument, and modify it sensibly in the light of some of the remarks made in discussion.

    I use SlideShare to post presentations to my blogs and web-pages, but it doesn't handle fancy effects well (not that I use many of them, other than building up graphics). So I have to break down many slides into their components, and run them as a sequence...

    What I have learned over the years, but never condensed/collapsed until now to the extent that I could post it or teach it (and probably all you readers are way ahead of me on this) is that powerpoint is rubbish at handling arguments and needs to be wrestled into submission.

    I've written about this general issue before (here, with links to previous stuff) but not about the epistemology of presentation packages (you can get at Edward Tufte's and others' takes on this via the link above). There's a strictly practical view here.

    In short, these packages are about hierarchical knowledge structures. As Tufte points out in relation to the NASA Challenger disaster enquiry, the presentation template allowed for six levels of detail. So the enquiry team followed that default model, and missed the point because it didn't fit--the package did not readily accommodate (the mot juste) impact from bottom to top as much as from top to bottom.

    I'm interested in Prezi, as an alternative to powerpoint (I concede the term has achieved default status like "hoover" and "xerox", so the "tm" stuff is pointless) but its zoom structure is still based on hierarchy, and it's not easy to create a pan-and-zoom display which neither induces nausea, nor attracts attention to itself to the detriment of the content. Nevertheless, its general approach of offering a large (pretty well infinite) virtual canvas, which can be examined in greater and greater detail--and then in broader and broader context, so that relations between material are clear--is promising.

    C-map tools, which can also be persuaded to work as a presentation package--although the process is not exactly intuitive--is good at presenting connected components of an argument. The nodes are simple labels, but the connections invite labels by default, such as A implies B,  or C includes D.  However, it is the least flexible package in terms of the incorporation of any other media or external material.

    The presentation as part of a system 

    When I use a presentation in a live lecture, it is of course subordinate to the address itself, which carries the burden of the argument. I may choose to put it on line, or distribute a handout based on it, but it does not stand alone; it is a gloss on a verbal event.

    Of course that is why simply making your slides available on the VLE is pretty useless. In most cases they just do not make sense as they stand. The same tends to be true of handouts. We often sort-of acknowledge this, and make the slides ever more verbose and comprehensive so that they will make stand-alone sense--but in so doing we make them less effective as a supporting act for the lecture. We end up reading out verbatim the content of the slides (often facing the screen to do so and thus turning our backs to the class)... Yuch!

    Everything in teaching, including syllabi, schemes of work, session plans, presentations, exercises, assessments, evaluations... Everything needs to be considered as part of, and interacting with, the rest of the teaching and learning system. So everything needs to be modified according to its place in the system.
    • (One of my least pleasant experiences in thirty-five years of teaching in colleges and universities occurred this summer, when, for reasons which are neither fully understood nor relevant, but which were clearly motivated by disproportionate vitriolic animus, a kangaroo court was mounted under the guise of an "internal review" of a course with which I had a long-standing relationship. The part of this which most clearly affected me was the "critique" of the course handbook, which I have edited for fifteen years, and indeed the only outcome of this review process [rant deleted...] was an annotated Word file of the handbook demanding more than two hundred revisions [including, I concede, some useful observations--perhaps five of them.] The supposed justification was variation from the formal quality assurance template. But the handbook is for students. Their concerns are different from QA mavens. [And incidentally, the handbook had been commended by QAA and Ofsted and the external examiners, and even the university's head of quality assurance, as a model of its kind.])
    • Sorry! But the comprehensible part of the dispute can be attributed in part to the assumption by QA obsessives that everyone needs to be told the same thing in the same way at the same level of detail... An insistence on (too many) absolute (and potentially incompatible) values distorts the system. (The same mistake may lead to the collapse of the euro. I did try warning them in the late '90s, but no-one was listening...)
    Back at the important stuff! If I post the material on a blog or SlideShare or the VLE, even with podcast support, the burden of the argument is borne by the visuals. If you have looked at the page where all this started, you will have seen that my solution (for which I make no great claims--I am sure there are better ones), is to include explanatory call-outs on most pages which at least hint at what I said in person at the live event.

    Forms of knowledge and media for presentation

    As the presentation in question touches on, I'm renewing my interest in the distinction Hudson articulated in 1966, between convergent and divergent thinkers. I've revisited the original account, in which he discusses testing the intelligence of schoolboys (forgive the dated expression):
    "Initially I had hoped, [...] that open-ended tests would cut across the arts/science distinction, and give some reflection of boys' brightness; of their level, in other words, rather than their bias. The results were a surprise. Far from cutting across the arts/science distinction, the open-ended tests provided one of my best correlates of it. Most arts specialists, weak at the IQ tests, were much better at the open-ended ones; most scientists were the reverse. Arts specialists are on the whole divergers, physical scientists convergers. Between three and four divergers go into arts subjects like history, English literature and modern languages for every one that goes into physical science. And, vice versa, between three and four convergers do mathematics, physics and chemistry for every one that goes into the arts. As far as one can tell from the samples available, classics belong with physical science, while biology, geography, economics, and general arts courses attract convergers and divergers in roughly equal proportions." (Hudson, 1966: 42. My emphasis.)
    It is, I concede, principally on the basis of this (and similar) passage(s) that I argue that convergence and divergence are not primarily attributes of people but of disciplines. The distinction is epistemological rather than psychological (on balance, of course; like all these constructs it's a bit of both. And the issue of match between discipline and learner makes a difference. And I bow to Jim Hamlyn's point about the plethora of categories of knowledge...)

    It's not a particularly original step to argue that different disciplines call for different pedagogies, but the proliferation of technologies now poses new questions about what suits what. I got into this in a minor way, years ago, when the options were limited (here). The questions are still more important than the answers. In relation to the session I started this reflection from, you can see the resulting revision and make your own judgement about what I got right and what wrong...

    But that is the wrong question...
    • What did this approach to presentation "privilege" (emphasise) or "deprecate" (play down)? 
    • How did the choice of this medium affect the power-balance in the room? 
    • How would the choice of any other method/medium have covertly affected the expectations/experience of the participants? 
    • How seriously would they nowadays take a presenter who walked in with no notes and just occasionally wrote a keyword or drew on a flip chart--although she could be much more responsive to the group*? **
    • What difference does it make how handouts are handled (no, there is no universal rule)?
    Enough. Bottom line: Media, methods*** and content all influence and constrain each other in an elaborate dance. You can't (or at least shouldn't) treat any element in isolation. But the conventional theories of pedagogy don't help. Ask the questions, and develop your own answers.

    *  There's another rub. To what extent do your class members identify with the class group? Does "responding to the group" largely mean going along with the louder members' concerns, regardless of their self-appointed status...

    ** There'll be more on the bottom-line of this in a different context, in a day or two...

    *** This post has been deliberately conservative about "methods", partly because the original stimulus concerned a very conventional seminar presentation, but more because even that was very complex under the surface, and I wanted the post to make at least some semblance of sense.

    03 December 2011

    Items to share (3 December 2011)

    "...I think lots of people are beginning to realize that accusing your audience, and depressing your audience, and guilt tripping your audience, and trashing your opponents is not a winning formula."
    "...the most beguiling thing to me was the notion that had not Judaea come together and formed a nucleus of a serious Jewish state, then Judaism would not have thrived in the way it did and led to Christianity and then to Islamism, and the world would be a totally different place. It's one of the great "might not have beens" of history. (Melvyn Bragg's newsletter)
    • Another spuriously precise and prescriptive model of learning contested.

    02 December 2011

    On damp kindling

    I got a Kindle for my birthday.

    I didn't buy one for myself for many reasons, chief of which was that it purported to be a solution to a non-existent problem (leaving aside the relatively trivial sustainability argument--clearly it is trivial when Amazon, pleading VAT regulations, can charge more for a virtual edition than for a lovely case-bound hardback).

    Granted, I discovered that I could download free sample chapters from some prospective purchases, which may be a step up from bookshop browsing. And there is a substantial back catalogue of free or almost-free texts; most of them could be found on the net, but I have to concede that they are easier to read on the Kindle.

    The flicker of a constantly refreshing screen is subliminal, but even so it is there on a monitor, and although the kindle screen has a way to go, it is more comfortable for prolonged reading. Indeed, its font and format options are great for anyone whose sight is at all impaired. The days of the large-print book may well be numbered.

    There are nevertheless limitations to the display. The contrast and grey-scale, and apparently limited standard templates, restrict the layout and formatting, not to mention the graphics. Of course, embedded links to colour graphics and even video can be incorporated, just not implemented in this incarnation.

    I have just made my first proper purchase.

    (Yes, it is legitimate to ask what right I have to pontificate on this on the basis of one purchase. But sometimes it is useful to remember the first time for technical reasons... Oh, get over it :-)  )

    It is frighteningly, seductively easy. My security system requires me to register specific items of kit with the wifi router via their MAC address; that took less than five minutes from a baseline of total ignorance. And I already had one-click enabled.

    So I can find any Kindled item on Amazon, and buy and dowload it to my Kindle with three clicks. They say it takes a minute, but that's pessimistic.

    At one level that is brilliant, but I can see myself acquiring a backlog of unread stuff because of momentary impulses. I do that now, of course, but at least I can see the reproachfully growing piles of unread physical books, prompting me to make inroads,

    I checked out the hard-copy version of the book I had downloaded, courtesy of Heffers in Cambridge (not that I asked them. But they only had three copies, and none in the front of house displays)  I was disappointed by the referencing of the Kindle version, and had wondered whether it was dumbed-down for the digital market. It wasn't--but then it would require more editorial effort to do so than to leave it as it was... and even more to plug it in to the infinite net.

    But of course Kindle couldn't have an index, when the pagination is dynamic, could it? Well, yes, with one-click links. And a search function--which has a system of identifying "locations" within a text; I have not yet worked out whether those remain consistent despite formatting changes, and whether they can be shared. A blogger I follow has just posted a link to a key passage in a kindle text, but the link just took me to my own notes page rather than his... this is not yet intuitive practice.

    So the annotation/ highlighting/ mark-up facilities are limited and a pain to use at the moment--in the case of the Kindle 4 in large measure because of the clunky virtual keyboard. But they do exist, however rudimentary the form. And since a substantial proportion of users will never use them, and older versions of the kit do include a basic keyboard, and there is at least the opportunity to share annotations, which is a great idea... Amazon is on a good track. 

    OK, I'm 67, from a receding generation, and I'm hooked on physical books; books do furnish a room after all. I can't see myself adopting Kindle as my default reading format. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I don't read the page in quite the same way as a book. The line length is shorter, by default, and so I don't have to scan as much as I do on a normal printed text. I can skim more easily. That's good for some things and less so for others.

    I have not mentioned that the Kindle is not restricted to displaying Amazon material, and the fraught question of online availability is one I shall leave aside here; but it is easy to transfer rich text files so that you can readily have to hand all the documentation for a meeting without a single piece of paper. I very rarely do meetings like that any more, thank goodness, and there are other ways of achieving the same end, but for the moment this is an elegant solution.

    Somehow I suspect that just as the afterthought of SMS messaging became the unexpected killer app. of the mobile phone, the e-reader may find its niche far from the novel-reading commuter who is its present target.