Saturday, October 26, 2013

Writing through a Loss of Voice

A number of posts from Jenny Mackness, Bon Stewart, and Paul Prinsloo caught my attention this week. All three deal with loss of their individual blogging voices. By accident, I read them in reverse-order, but the series was started by Prinsloo, self-described as "an education consultant and researcher at the University of South Africa (Unisa), an African mega open distance learning (ODL) higher education institution." As was the case with Bon Stewart, Prinsloo was a new voice for me, so it was somewhat ironic that I found his voice as he was losing it.

In his post Being tongue-tied and speechless in higher education: implications for notions of (il)literacy #metaliteracy, Prinsloo eloquently describes his precipitous loss of voice, so that after an extended period of prolific blogging, "Suddenly I have become illiterate (a point to which I will return later), in a world I did not understand anymore." He looks for reasons for his aphasia (problems with any or all of the following: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.), but "there is nothing specific that comes to mind. Not only do I suspect that there are many possible reasons, but the reasons are also interconnected, interdependent and layered." He concludes his fine post by wondering if many our students are also "tongue-tied and speechless, but not illiterate?"

Through a happy Twitter-enabled chance, Stewart picked up on Prisloo's post, and it resonated with her. She, too, had fallen away from blogging, sensing a loss of voice, and as had Prinsloo, she looked for explanations: "My silence hasn’t been mainly personal, though: rather, it stems from same uncertainty of speech writ large and broad; a pervasive, sinking sense of not knowing the contexts into which I speak and write and share my ideas."

Mackness suggests in her sympathetic reading of Stewart that perhaps she is frozen by a sense of conscious incompetence, or a sense that one is unable to perform competently in some arena. This was actually the first post of the series that I read, and I was intrigued enough to follow the discussion back through Stewart to Prinsloo. I am interested in this loss of voice as I have experienced it myself and in my students. I teach writing, and the "tongue-tied and speechless, but not illiterate" condition that Prinsloo describes is familiar. In a follow-up post, Mackness recommends advice from Jack Kerouac and Stephen Downes to keep moving forward, keep the fingers moving, and almost by magic the ideas will start moving again. The written voice will emerge from the moving fingers. Perhaps. I do use free-writing exercises with my students, but I can't say that they always work.

Several things occur to me about this exchange. First, all of these people are accomplished, polished writers. If they can suffer a loss of voice, then I can understand even better that my students who are not polished writers can also suffer a loss of voice, or not become confident enough to develop a voice in the first place. Public writing of most any kind means putting oneself out there. It means exposing oneself to possible ridicule and attack, embarassment and injury. This can be most threatening to beginning writers who have not become competent with language, but it can also be threatening to experienced writers who find themselves in a conversation about which they know relatively little or in a conversation with others who have much more power than they do. I do NOT think this is the case with these blog writers, but it is definitely the case with most of my students. Not only are they unsure of their command of written English, but in school they are forced to write to advanced experts, their teachers, about topics, the teachers' topics, that the students have not yet mastered. This is an awful situation, and probably the only sane thing to do is to plagiarize some expert just as we all once plagiarized our parents' political and social views in grade school.

But as I said, I don't think these writers are suffering from a sense of conscious incompetence. They know they can write, and they know that they have some useful knowledge to share. They also know that in any given conversation, they may encounter someone more knowledgeable or more mellifluous. In this case, silence is the intelligent response, or at most, some probing questions. I studied with Isaac Bashevis Singer at the University of Miami, and it was clear from our first meeting that I would never know as much about writing as he nor would I ever be able to say what I did know as well as he. So mostly I was quiet, save when I had an intelligent question. Singer was kind enough to treat all my questions as intelligent. I'm currently reading Michel Serres, and again, I'm mostly silent, making few pronouncements about the text, mostly asking questions. Serres knows more than I do about his issues, and he says it better. We have all been annoyed by those who were too bold and too dense to know when to be quiet.

But again, I don't think these writers are cowering before the collected brilliance and insight of the Internet. They are all experienced net writers, and they know that everyone is always more brilliant than anyone (e.e. cummings would be most proud), but they also know that it takes the voices of all the anyones to make up the voice of everyone. I think that their loss of voice stems from other causes.

I think that they may be overlooking fatigue. Sometimes, I'm just too damned tired to talk. Stewart notes that she is currently in a doctoral program, and like the rest of us, she likely has a range of other social, familial, and employment obligations that each take up half of her time. The trouble is, of course, that the Net is never too damned tired to talk. It is incessant, and no one can keep up with it. Burnout is real for me, so I think it might be real for them, and sometimes, the only intelligent response to burnout is silence.

But I think that Stewart points at a more potent reason for loss of voice when she says that she has "a pervasive, sinking sense of not knowing the contexts into which I speak and write and share my ideas. … Over the last year – particularly the more I followed and unpacked the hype cycle of MOOCs – the more I felt like I no longer recognize the story of education as it gets told. Or enacted in policy and curriculum design. Or reported in the news. I have been silent because I no longer felt like I knew how to talk about any of it." I think Stewart is spot on here. She has not moved; rather, the conversation has moved, and she's no longer certain that she wants to be part of it. It's as if she were singing in a choir that suddenly and unexpectedly shifts keys to C and she's still singing in B. As would any intelligent, sensitive person, she quits singing until she can reorient herself, and she doesn't rejoin the singing until she decides that the key of C works for her.

I, too, joined early the conversation about MOOCs, mostly because I found MOOCs so engaging and inspiring, but also like Stewart, I lately find the conversation shifting to a different key, one not suited to my vocal range. I may write a post about that shift, now that Stewart has pointed to it, but I'm not sure that I have the interest to think about it. More likely, I will continue to think about MOOCs in ways that make sense to me, and trust that enough others will engage in that conversation. If they don't, then I will eventually quit talking about MOOCs, I suppose.

I think this shift in conversation is familiar to most of us, certainly in our social contexts. I think we've all been in a good conversation at a party or other gathering when the conversation shifts gears and becomes less interesting to us. Maybe new people join the conversation, and all of a sudden, the tone changes. It's time to get a drink or go to the john.

It's unfortunate that this shift in conversation can have such an adverse affect on the best of writers. The change in a conversation can make us feel as if our loss of voice is somehow our fault—after all, lots of other people still seem to have lots to talk about in this conversation—but I don't think it is our fault. Rather, our silence is a reasonable response to the new conversation that has emerged. The key response to such a situation is to disengage in silence (shouting usually does no good), and find or create another conversation. Engaged and sensitive writers such as Prinsloo, Stewart, and Mackness will always find an engaged and sensitive audience, I think.

Finally, I want to point out that all of these writers were able to write through their loss of voice, despite their loss of voice. It illustrates the advice I give my students when they say they have nothing to say: I tell them to write just that and to keep writing it until they write something else. Writing about not writing is a great way to kickstart your writing and find your voice. I have a bit of respect for silence. The long, slow writing that Mackness refers to can include long, slow stretches of silence. At least for me, and I'm good with that.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Complex Time and Education

A discussion of complex time can too easily become abstract and abstruse, at least for me, but I don't think it necessarily must become so. Time is one of those basic concepts that pretty much informs everything else, even education (I say education with some tongue in cheek, maybe the whole tongue in cheek), so Time has practical implications. The problem is that we usually don't know-tice those implications because they are so basic. Like air, we don't raise Time to consciousness until it's gone or changed. Then we notice too late.

What I take from my readings of Smolin and Serres is that Time is not what we think it is. It is not the regular march of events, all queued up in a neatly progressing, laminar flow, which we can accurately measure and rely on to synchronize our activities. This view of time, which is really quite modern as most any study of the technology of timekeeping will demonstrate, is part of humanity's efforts to wrench the natural complexity of the world into the simple domain for our convenience. Wrenching natural complexity into some kind of simplicity is one of the great works of humanity, taking up much of our energies and time. Simple, limited categories with simple, limited actions and interactions make life so much easier in so many ways. To fall back on a trivial example I have used elsewhere in this blog, we want a well-ordered sock drawer that makes it easy to keep, manage, and retrieve our socks. The problem is that much of life doesn't like being confined to neatly arranged sock drawers. Certainly people don't, but that doesn't stop us from trying to put them there.

Likewise, we want to make Time a simple, limited sock drawer, neatly and regularly progressing, each second, hour, and day named, labeled, and marching by to a strict and universal metronomic beat. This view of Time has great benefits: from helping us show up for dinner on time to helping us launch a spacecraft to Mars. We cannot easily dismiss the affordances of a regular Time proceeding along a single, segmented, straight line. Unfortunately, actual Time—the Time that exists out there in the wild—seems to care for our single, segmented, straight line about as much as a litter of puppies do.

If Smolin is correct, then Time is not eternal and unchanging. Rather, it is something like an emergent property of the Universe, and it changes as that Universe changes, and as we slip among different scales of the Universe at different speeds. Time percolates, as Serres says it. I really like that image: percolation, the uneven flow through a textured boundary. I'm not sure that Time is in fact a flow at all, but flow does capture the sense of movement that we have when we experience time, and percolation captures the sense we have that some times move differently than other times, while still other times don't move at all. Moreover, for Serres, the Past and the Future are not flat, geometrically regular structures; rather, they are rich, textured topographies with hills, valleys, cliffs, reversals, and dead ends. Time flows like a river, then, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes caught in eddies, sometimes backing up. At any one point of the river, some part of the river can be flowing in most any direction.

Needless to say, then, Time—the actual Time that we swim in—often disregards or even violates our simple, sock drawer arrangement of time. Consider, for instance, my reading of Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time by Serres and Latour. We like to think that a book—like Time—follows a linear progression with a clear starting point (the Big Bang) and proceeding in some orderly fashion through to the end, and that we can measure this in some kind of words per minute (say, 100 WPM as numbers combined with acronyms often enhance our sense that we are measuring something significant). We should build the meaning of the book bit by bit at 100 WPM, accreting meaning, until we have fashioned the complete edifice, but that isn't what happened to me in this book, and as I think about it, it doesn't happen to me in most books—at least not the ones I would ever reread. The reading proceeds very unevenly, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, and sometimes completely reversing itself. The reading percolates, and that reading is bound up in Time. It takes time to read, and that time percolates like oil oozing through fracked bedrock. There is no metronome, or not one that makes sense.

Most of Time is like this: oil oozing through bedrock, coughing, gushing, slipping laterally, backing up, and we confuse and frustrate ourselves when we forget that time is like this.

I am not, however, arguing that we all throw away our timepieces and revert to Grateful Dead time. We cannot overlook the powerful affordances of simple, regularized time, and some important processes are still dependent on this kind of time, but we should never forget that it is a fiction, and we should not be surprised when Time slips the sock drawer and oozes in some direction we did not expect. Most importantly, we should not try to preserve simple time when it is no longer beneficial—for instance, when we are educating people.

An industrial, factory age relied overwhelmingly on a consistent, regular, ubiquitous measure of Time. The assembly line demanded it, and it helped us to build the 20th century. We educated the majority of our societies based on this mechanical, simple time. We built, and destroyed, much with the assembly line model of space and time, but most of us have moved beyond the assembly line model. We live in a networked world, not a mechanical factory world; however, we are still educating in a factory model. We move people through educational programs in batches, all at the same time, all at the same pace, all measured at the same regular intervals, all based on the same simple view of Time. The affordances of such a time structure are disappearing, and in most places, they are long since gone. Now, such a model actually hinders education rather than helping. We should let it go. It's time for education to percolate. We have the tools to do it—now we just need the mindset.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Complexity and Time

I'm trying to sort out my current thinking about complexity, and I started the process of untangling myself a couple of weeks ago with a reference to time as that zone of engagement between the chaos of an open-ended future and the simplicity of a fixed, closed past.

I was pleased then when I came across the RSA lecture Time Reborn by Lee Smolin, founder of The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada:

If you have watched Smolin's presentation, then I think you will see that he is arguing that the laws of physics are themselves emergent properties that change. I do not presume to know how they change, and those details are somewhat tangential to the point I want to make. If Smolin is correct, then ALL of the universe is a dynamic, open-ended, complex system. Even time, or space/time, is dynamic, and the laws that describe it change as it changes. It's all a dance, and nothing lasts forever. I mean, if you can't rely on time, what can you rely on?

That every where and when is complex does not mean that we cannot carve out simple spaces for ourselves. For instance, we can examine the mating habits of red ants or the development of the Italian sonnet, and we gain great powers and capabilities through this focus and reduction. We can learn about cell structures and processes and then figure out how to curb disease or correct an injury. We can, and should, define discrete, simple systems within which we have the ability to know to a nearly complete degree all elements and processes within the system so that we are able to work forward to predict all possible states of the system and to work backward to uncover all possible causes of those states. These are wonderful accomplishments and of great benefit to humanity, but the moment we believe that our knowledge is stable and eternal, then we deceive ourselves and list heavily toward error and closed-minded fundamentalism.

All can and will change. Fortunately, at the scale of human life, many of the processes we work with day-to-day function at a much different scale; thus, those processes appear within a normal human lifespan to be stable. Time changes, but not as quickly as we do, so most of us can effectively ignore its changes.

Like time, rocks and stars fall into the slow category, but rock stars do not. And here is the rub. Much of human life is changing today much faster than it did before, so fast that we cannot expect for things to be stable for years or decades, much less centuries. As I've noted within this blog before, roughly from 1995 to 2005, humanity changed from fewer than half the world's population having ever made a phone call to over half the population owning a cell phone. This is hyper-churning. With our technologies, we have created an evolutionary dynamic that is churning knowledge and culture so fast that we can no longer fool ourselves that things are eternal.

Rather, I should say that we must fool ourselves to continue to believe that things are eternal in the old sense of lasting unchanged forever. "We hold these truths to be self-evident": and so on. This undeniable hyperactivity is unsettling for many, and may well explain the resurgence of all kinds of fundamentalisms as people seek stability, a respite from the heat of change.

It seems that once you start looking for things, then you see them everywhere. Just days after I listened to Smolins' talk about the emergent properties of time, I read a book by Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995), in which Serres tries to explain his view of time and its implications for his approach to philosophy. It seems that for Serres time is not merely, or simply, the steady, laminar flow of events along a straight line from future through now into past that most of us think it is. Rather, time is a topological structure of great complexity. Time percolates, flowing unevenly through the loose rock of now, moving rapidly here, slowing elsewhere, and in some places, completely reversing. And this uneven, turbulent flow is not along a smooth, straight line, but through a richly contoured, deeply textured landscape that runs smoothly downhill here and stalls there and swirls into eddies elsewhere. Thus, for Serres as for Faulkner, we are not evenly separated from the past and the future. Rather, some of the past folds back into the present, and the future arrives unevenly. As Serres says it so well:
Time does not always flow according to a line … nor according to a plan but, rather, according to an extraordinarily complex mixture, as though it reflected stopping points, ruptures, deep wells, chimneys of thunderous acceleration, rendings, gaps—all sown at random, at least in a visible disorder. Thus, the development of history truly resembles what chaos theory describes. Once you understand this, it's not hard to accept the fact that time doesn't always develop according to a line and thus things that are very close can exist in culture, but the line makes them appear very distant from one another. Or, on the other hand, that there are things that seem very close that, in fact, are very distant from one another. Lucretius and modern theory of fluids are considered as two places separated by an immense distance, whereas I see them as in the same neighborhood. … The classical theory is that of the line, continuous or inerrupted, while mine would be more chaotic. Time flows in an extraordinarily complex, unexpected, complicated way. (57, 58)
Serres then connects time and weather in the French word le temps, which  "at a profound level … are the same thing" (58). Well, Serres took some time for me to read, and the meaning of his book percolated through my brain very unevenly. I think this has implications for reading and writing, but I'll have to think more.