Spatial Skill Is Early Sign of Creativity

From the [New York Times article][]:

> A gift for spatial reasoning — the kind that may inspire an imaginative child to dismantle a clock or the family refrigerator — may be a greater predictor of future creativity or innovation than math or verbal skills, particularly in math, science and related fields, according to a study published Monday in the journal [Psychological Science][].

[New York Times article]:
[Psychological Science]:

Students Aren’t Terribly Good at Evaluating Teaching

Not many teachers place great faith in the semesterly ritual of *student evaluation of instruction*. Most of us disregard the results, as much as we dare in this era of ascendant administrative power, because we have seen the forms: a collection of overly abstract questions designed to make it possible for students to fill it out as quickly as possible and for someone somewhere to collect the data. Once upon a time it was dark, graphite circles on a scanned page; now it’s something like radio buttons on a screen. (I don’t know: I haven’t seen the latest version of SEI being used at my university — they could be asking them for their favorite recipes for all I know.)

[James Rovira][] has a link-filled post on “Charismatic Teacher = High Evals, but not High Learning,” pointing out that with everyone calling MOOCs the next wave of education, we are only reinforcing poor pedagogical practices: as Rovira notes, *lecturing* and *teaching* are two different things. He concludes with something really disturbing: “high student course evaluations are negatively correlated with deep, long-term learning. In other words, when teachers engage in practices that help students retain what they’ve learned, they’re punished for it with low student evaluations.” Here’s the link for the [UC-Davis study][] that makes this case.

For the other links, see Rovira’s post.

[James Rovira]:
[UC-Davis study]:

Graduate Seminar Design

As I have noted previously, recent events, some good and some bad, have convinced me to revise my research and professional agendas, returning to my first love, which was understanding how the structure of language and the structure of the imagination interact and reveal each other. In an effort to move my own thinking along as well as to gauge interest for narrative studies in my home department, I decided to offer a seminar on the topic this semester. And I think I made a mistake in how I designed it.

The course’s design, to some degree, was predicated upon the nature of the English department in which I work, which houses concentrations not only in my home field of folklore studies but also in literary studies, rhetoric and composition, creative writing, and linguistics. Given such a diversity of interests, I decided to keep the reading load relatively light, the assumption being that students would pursue relevant citations, topics, etc. in their own fields of interest and bring those readings and explorations back to the seminar table. The mistake I made, I think, was not in formalizing this assumption into some sort of structure of assignments or moments during seminar discussions that made it possible for disciplined students to share and made, er, less-disciplined students aware of the work involved in being a successful scholar.

This was a foolish mistake on my part, and one as a mid-career academic and pedagogue I should not have made. It was, in other words, a rookie mistake. My defense of such a rook move is that I was so excited by the work I am doing and the things that I am reading that I assumed others would be, too. And there were, to be clear, a number of students who embraced the open design of the seminar, but it did not serve all students equally well.

Now, some will maintain, quite rightly, that those students it did not serve well are probably not going to make it very far in graduate school, nor in the profession, and you will probably be quite right. And I generally don’t have a problem with such things taking their natural course. But it does feel like a waste of time both on my part and on their part. Look! You want to cry. Look at all the cool stuff all around you! Just look down, pick something up, and play with it! It fascinates me that people can want to be in graduate school and not be intellectually curious, not want to understand the nature of scholarship (of science), and not want at least to try to do the kind of work that scholars do, if only for the sake of trying it out.

Raising a World Builder

In the car this morning on the way to school I commented to my daughter that the rain had made driving a bit more difficult than usual and that I would have to make sure to keep two hands on the wheel. It was, for me in that moment, simply a metonym for paying attention, and, I confess, a way of letting my daughter know that her dad may not be paying as close attention to our conversation as we both often enjoy. We have, over the years of our morning commute that gets her to school and me to work, enjoyed a wide variety of conversations, and sometimes they run sufficiently wild, especially at her end, that I have to remind her, as a way of reminding myself, that driving is the highest priority.

A little too often my reminder really comes out more as a chide, which I always regret, unless of course she simply performs some conversational judo on it, which she did, by responding, “What if you had three hands?” Her first thought was that I could drive and wave to drivers nearby, but quickly she spun the idea out into a variety of possibilities before settling down into playing a variety of instruments with three hands: there was a three-handed piano piece, then a three-handed guitar melody, and then a three-handed trumpet call. The sounds grew wilder, weirder and her laughter built from giggles to squeals.

Her first move displayed the power of divergent thinking, something which has been explored quite a bit over the past few decades in creativity studies, but her next move was to dwell in a particular domain, to immerse herself in a world, and to play with the possibilities there. For the time being, I would like to call that immersive thinking. It is surely related to that kind of thinking that we sometimes call rich mode or right brain thinking, but I am not sure how.[^1]

World-building is like a reflex action for my daughter. From the time she could speak, she spun out stories. She usually enacts the stories, dramatizing them with props and costuming if she is a character or animating a wide variety of objects, some of them more obviously meant for such use and others not. I can’t, for example, count the number of times objects at restaurant tables have come to life and led complex, social lives when adult conversation became uninteresting to her. My wife and I have seen utensils be sisters, salt and pepper shakers be parents, and a tented napkin become a home.

It’s an amazing thing to watch, but as many creative individuals know, such an ability does not come without its penalties. While her school has labeled her a “deep creative,” they really have been unable to come up with a plan on how to make a space within which she can learn and grow to suit her own abilities and interests. Don’t get me wrong: she does well in school, but that’s largely because we have lobbied hard at home for her to adapt to the regimen at school. And so she gets high marks but those marks are regularly accompanied by comments from, well-meaning and really nice, teachers that she does not pay attention as well as she should, that she is “daydreamy” or that “sometimes she just phones it in.”

One could perhaps fault the teachers, but I rarely find individuals are the problem in these circumstances. More often a system is at work. In this case, I think it’s fair to blame a larger educational ideology that has come to rely upon standardized tests as one of its central metrics. In a moment that resembles the classical economics parables about unintended consequences, what we are facing as parents, as the paroxysms of our own child, is an entire educational system which many believe is headed precisely in the wrong direction for what looks like reasonable, well, reasons.

Indeed, an entire cluster of industries have arisen around the wobbling of the educational infrastructure in our country. The technorati favor two flavors that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first flavor is that articulated by Ken Robinson who argues that our schools are stuck in the industrial age, anxiously trying to turn out uniform widgets in a moment where standardization couldn’t be less useful — the assumption being that things are changing more quickly and more predictably than ever. I don’t subscribe fully to this latter notion, but it’s not hard to see that the current context for businesses favors only a few large incumbents with stability, but employment with those incumbents, as two decades of layoffs and jobs moving from one part of the world to another have provied, is not stable. In other words, institutions have stability, but only individuals at the top of those institutions get to enjoy the fruits of that stability.

Outside of those narrow mountaintop retreats, there’s a whole host of changes taking place as industries transform in the face of an amazing amount of computing power. My own industry, higher education, is facing such a transition, but think about even the way manufacturing is changing as building components becomes less about removing metal by mill and lathe work or stamping and cutting but more about “printing” them by building up a part molecule by molecule. Suddenly, economies of scale matter less and sheer imagination matters more. (Well, you’ll still need quite a bit of capital to have such a “printer” at your disposal, but that’s a return to a history we have seen already — i.e., the original printing press!)

We are, we thought, paying the difference between a public school education with two dozen kids in a classroom and a private school education with only a dozen kids in a classroom as a way of giving our daughter’s particular abilities, and inabilities, greater attention. She needs to adjust to the conventions of the world, but as the world itself seeks to explore differences more for the value those differences contribute, we think there is also a place for her differences within any given curriculum. (More on this difference between a teacher-centered and a student-centered pedagogy another time.)

Here’s the short of it: our daughter is a geek.

She has all the classic geek traits: she prefers to be fully immersed in a problem or project or world and she oscillates between wanting external affirmation for her accomplishments and not caring what others think. Most geeks I know are like this. Many of them truly believe they don’t need anyone’s approval, and for a few of them that may very well be true. I also know, speaking as a geek (I think) myself, that, yes, sometimes a nod from someone you respect is not only all you need, but it is something you really want.

A lot of curricula which have high geek probabilities have switched to more project-oriented pedagogies. We are seeing more of it engineering, and it has always been a prominent part of architecture. I’m less sure of it in the sciences, but the sciences have always had really cool laboratories and other kinds of experiences at the upper levels — plus their upper-level ranks thin out and they can spend more time one-on-one with the students. (Some of it comes down to self-selection: people often find the curricula which suits their own learning preferences. More on this later, too.)

But what to do with our little geek, our world builder?

She wants to do well, but she can’t when the system is rigged to work against the way she thinks, the way she processes information. Let me give an example from recent experience — and it’s not to pick on any one teacher — but it grabbed my imagination and I think it provides a useful contrast:

Our daughter is in the school choir. Every year the choir puts on a musical — last year it was_Charlie and the Chocolate Factory_; this year it is _The Wizard of Oz_. Every year students have to audition for a role in the play. Now, how do you suppose that audition takes place? Does it come after a few weeks of watching the film version or reading all or parts of the book? Does it come after listening to some of the story’s most famous passages and songs? That is, does it allow an immersive thinker an opportunity to do what they do best, get inside a world and look around, elaborate it, play with it? No, the auditions are songs from some place else, handed out the week or so before the auditions. Students are told to practice the songs, do their best, and decisions will get made.

Now, that approach works if a student is procedurally-driven and understands the necessity, or already desires, adult approval. It doesn’t work at all for the student that needs to live and breathe inside a thing, to get a sense of it, to find their excitement there.

Fundamentally, this comes down to the difference between teachers as the center of a curriculum and students at the center. As a teacher myself, I know I can’t be all things to all students, and in a post to follow, I want to think more about how education might be made better for more kinds of learners than it currently is. In fact, I worry about one recent trend in particular: the rise of the _master teacher_ and what that means for learning differences — here, learning differences are meant much more broadly than they are in the education industry.

[^1]: The classical conception of the different ways the brain works are that it possesses primarily two modes of operating, linear and rich. The linear mode, popularly known as left brain, works well with language and other sequential kinds of processing. The rich mode, aka the right brain, processes information through patterns. We think of it as intuitive, that years upon years of experience and practice have so layered any sequence with so much richness that it feels somehow magical when we can discern dozens and hundreds of possible steps and can calculate what the best possible next step is based upon those layers. That is, intuition seems to be an example of the two modes operating really well together.

Python Text Processing for Freshmen

In my freshman introduction to academic writing, we do some reading, because, after all, you need something about which to write. I focus on a small group of texts because they can hold the evidence in their hands and because I teach how to think and work with texts when I am not introducing people to academic writing. That is, I assume that a biologist teaching an introduction to academic writing would use biological data as the basis for her course. That English professors are uniquely situated to teach academic writing, broadly construed, is something for another conversation. Or perhaps it is an empirical move on the English department’s part, to claim all of academic writing when what we know how to do, and thus can claim to teach, is writing about texts.

So we read a small number of texts, two of which are short stories and two of which are screenplays. All four of the texts are available to the students as both plain texts and PDFs. I have, in the past, used a collection of Java apps (applets) that allow students to do things like create word frequency lists, create word clouds, or examine word collocations. (For the latter I am entirely indebted to James Dombrowski for his excellent Wordij.) While running these apps does introduce students to the command line, it does not do much beyond that, and I would like, no matter how silly this seems, at least to introduce them to the idea that they can use a scripting language to do things in various dimensions of their lives. Plus I hope that, like me, they discover that learning to code is also a way to learn another way to think.

And so I have begun a hunt for a collection of Python scripts that do some of the things we already do in class and perhaps some scripts that take us new places.

*Please note that as of December 21 — Happy Mayan Apocalypse Day! — this post is still in process and this material is not yet curated. Plus, I’m really looking for feedback from readers on what kinds of text analysis they would want students to do. Keep in mind that this is not “big data” but single texts or a very small collection of texts.*

Okay, first thing we already do is generate a word frequency list, which we visualize both as bar charts and as word clouds. What good does this do? Well, first, it introduces the idea of *function words*, words which must be present in discourse for it to go but to which we, apparently, attribute very little meaning. Just as important as this idea is the idea that in addition to function words there is a list of other words within a text which do not have a significant impact on its meaning and which can be ignored: stopword lists are great for this because students get to make this happen, quite mechanically, and then see the results in their much more focused, and interesting, word clouds.

One thing that might be useful to add here is a script that lemmatizes the words in a text, or its resulting list of words.

Someone asked a question on StackExchange about [how Wordle creates its word clouds][], and they got an answer from a lot of people, including Wordle’s own Jonathon Feinberg. In particular, Reto Aebersold posted a link to his [PyTagCloud on GitHub][]. There is also a link to someone creating a word cloud with Processing, but that’s for another time. (I am thinking, for a technical writing course, how we could take some of these outputs, feed them into Processing, and then have some sort of real world output, using something like Arduino. Oh, yeah, I’m ready to have some fun.)

And then there’s this interesting bit of code, [Story Statistics on DaniWeb][]. I’m

### About the Texts

For those who are curious, the texts are:

* Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game”
* Frederic Brown’s “Arena”
* Star Trek (The Original Series) “Arena”
* Star Trek: The Next Generation “Darmok”

[how Wordle creates its word clouds]:
[PyTagCloud on GitHub]:
[Story Statistics on DaniWeb]:

Learning to Write/Build/Program

Almost three weeks ago I posted on Facebook — I know, I know, I constantly swear off “the facebook” but a rich blog infrastructure has not arisen among my friends and colleagues — the following observation:

> Yesterday I found myself in a metal shop, cutting and piecing together aluminum for a project underway. The work was satisfying, a sign of my having been considered competent enough to perform a certain level of work. While not asked to weld, my task did require a certain amount of precision, since my cuts would determine the quality of the overall assembly.
> As I stood there measuring and cutting, I wondered about my own qualified competence in the world of the metal shop and how it compared to what some of my students feel in the world of the university classroom. What do builders feel like among words?
> There’s obviously a lot more that can be said here, but where I found my focus was on the question of how best to reach those builders, to make it possible for them to work with words with as much competence as they bend and weld metal into machines, piece together lumber into houses, or connect electrical lines into a lighting system. After all, a sentence is one word added to another added to another added to another. String sentences together to make paragraph. Stack paragraphs to make a story or an essay.

While my initial concluding question was “Is this possibly the beginning of a textbook?” — because everything in the academy is measured by publication — I think I’d like to take the aspirations for this down a notch and think about this in terms of a class. (More on this in a moment.) At my university, we offer a course in technical writing, but so far as I know, much of it is dedicated to teaching business and engineering majors a set number of writing genres, e.g. the business letter or the process document.

What if we could demonstrate for engineers that writing could be another form of thinking for them, a place where they could think outside the realm of the materials before them in order to get a fresh perspective on the work itself? I discussed this possibility over a number of years with architecture faculty, after having sat on a number of theses and finding myself regularly distracted by the quality of writing in the documents attached to a project. The faculty have always been very welcoming and appreciative of my efforts and interests: they understand that writing can not only make for better communications with clients but also for different kinds of thinking.

Today I discovered that someone else is thinking about this [from the other, or another, direction](

Writing as Building

Yesterday I found myself in a metal shop, cutting and piecing together aluminum for a project underway. The work was satisfying, a sign of my having been considered competent to perform a certain level of work. While not asked to weld, my task did require a certain amount of precision, since my cuts would determine the quality of the overall assembly.

As I stood there measuring and cutting, I thought about my own qualified competence in the world of the metal shop and how it compared to what some of my students feel in the world of the university classroom. What do builders feel like among words?

There’s obviously a lot more that can be said here, but where I found my focus was on the question of how best to reach those builders, to make it possible for them to work with words with as much competence as they bend and weld metal into machines, piece together lumber into houses, or connect electrical lines into a lighting system. After all, a sentence is one word added to another added to another added to another. String sentences together to make paragraph. Stack paragraphs to make a story or an essay.

Is this possibly the beginning of a textbook?

Over the past few years, I think I’ve begun to figure out how to teach students how to approach texts. I’ve even described it as mechanical. My goal has been to make the steps as repeatable and reliable as possible. Such a system doesn’t guarantee a reader any great insight, but I’m not sure I would trust any system that claims to do so. I do feel that students who follow the procedures I’ve developed will know their text well enough to be in a position to have some insight into those possible meanings which they themselves find interesting.

I don’t know that I have developed a similar set of steps for getting students through the writing process. Not yet, not fully.

A nine-year-old girl in Scotland started blogging about her school lunches and she made the world a better place. [Wired has the story.][wired] Be prepared to have your heart warmed and to feel just a little bit better about darn near everything.

The lesson, for me, is to allow students to find something that interests them and then let them put everything they’ve got into it. Then my job as a teacher is to find ways to get them the knowledge they need. *Need* here is terribly important, because I don’t want it restricted to what the student thinks they need or even what the project needs. Students need more than that, and projects do, too. Usually teachers as more experienced learners, as well as knowing about developmental stages, can address both.

This kind of teaching, however, requires small class sizes and motivated individuals: teachers, students, parents, administrators.


Early Storytelling

This fall I am teaching a course on games and storytelling for the first time. One of my goals for the course is simply to provide participants with useful concepts and terms for talking about things like stories and things like games. Finding a good introduction to narratoloy suitable for undergraduates is not as easy as it sounds, and the same goes for a book that introduces game theory — this is a university course after all, the ideal is to give them really great theories with which possibly to work. One of my goals here, for example, is to give them an opportunity to avoid the sloppy use of “story” to describe *wayyyy* too many things.

Having laid out some definitions that I hope will not only be useful for participants in other arenas but also act as a way to clear space in the arena of the course, I want to provide participants with an open space to explore the interaction between the two domains by giving them the option of coming up with their own project. Some will go with stories about games, a la _The Castle of Crossed Destinies_, and some will go with games with stories, a la Myst.

But some will come up with a genre/medium that I cannot even anticipate. One of the ways that I hope to encourage this kind of thinking is actually to show them my own daughter at play, both on her own and with her friends. There is something really interesting that happens in their play, which they sometimes call a “game”, that I find really interesting. If I were to try to delineate it, I would say that they begin, early on, with world-building, or at least a negotiation for the foundation of the framework within which they are going to play. Having done that, they begin to unfold some sort of dramatic scene: a mission or conflict or sometimes just a collection of characters who proceed to interact in some fashion.

What fascinates me is how they often they will recur to the frame itself as something to be refined in relationship to the story. In most adult games, this kind of revision of the rules is unheard of. You can’t change the rules to Monopoly in the middle of the game, nor do the rules of physics, or the basic scenario, change in the middle of a game of _Call of Duty_. But kids do it all the time, and, now that I think about it, one of the things that we work very heard to “teach” kids when we introduce them to “our” games” is that reality cannot be re-negotiated.

I talked about this with my daughter this morning, and I was on the point of asking her if it would be okay if I filmed her and a friend playing when she piped up to say, “We could come talk to your class.” See. Right there. It happened. A re-negotiation of reality. And so now I plan both to show my class children playing as well as have two children come to class and talk to them about playing, about storytelling. That, I think, will be a *game changer*.

[Making and learning are moving towards a merger][ml]. I don’t know who the person behind the Getting Smart website is, but the post is a useful synthesis of a number of recent efforts, or at least impulses, in this direction. While I wholeheartedly agree that education should be more facilitative, rather than instructional, than it currently is, I do wonder if all these advocates have considered the costs involved: facilitation requires a much higher number of teachers to work with smaller groups of students, so that the needs of each student, and their diverse groups, can be addressed individually and collectively. Personally, I’m all for it, and it’s the kind of teaching I enjoy the most, but I do wonder about the viability given the current economic landscape to cut education budgets, to impose more and more standardization, and, thus, to remove the teacher from any kind of interactive and/or proactive role in education.


The End of the Semester

As the end of the semester approaches, I have increasingly mixed emotions. On the one hand, there is the release/relief of the end of any set period of time during which a certain amount of work has to get done. It is the relief of closure. There is also the anticipation/anxiety of what comes next. For me, at this juncture, it is the opportunity to get some serious work done on my book, to move it from one-third complete to two-thirds complete perhaps by the end of May. There is also the mixed joy and sadness of seeing classes of students off: on the one hand, you (and they) have seen a lot of each other and you have come to know all the things about the other that annoy you; on the other hand, there is still so much to teach them, so much that could happen if classes were a year long and you had the chance to get past the three-month hump of annoyance — which, if you think about it, is also about the outside limit for casually dating someone and thus getting past the three-month hump is also a matter of getting past those initial annoyances and down to the more serious business of getting to know them as a person.

And this, getting to know someone as a person, is the crux of the matter for me. At this point in the semester, I am beginning to know my students as individual writers. I am beginning to understand their weaknesses and strengths, where they are lazy and where they are disciplined. I am really ready to teach them something, but there is no more time to do so.

Worse, the fact of the matter is that I do not document all of this as I should. I do not, I confess, keep careful track of who consistently turns assignments in early, who on time, who just at the last minute, and who late. I can tell you, if you asked me, but I do not record it anywhere.

Sadly, this is increasingly what the system wants to know. It is what is quantifiable, and as the systematization and normalization of all levels of education gradually transforms us — at precisely that moment when, as many experts tells us, we should be dispensing with such criteria — I find myself ill-prepared to answer the bureaucracy when it wants to know how I justified assigning a particular grade.

The irony is that primary and secondary education are more industrialized than ever before, and we seem to be well on our way, at least in Louisiana, to doing much the same with higher education. *The industrial revolution is over! Long live the industrial revolution!*

What we have then is a mis-match between the “blue ocean” proclaimed by one state bureaucracy and the red ocean strategy imposed upon the education system by another state bureaucracy. And I don’t think Louisiana is alone in this. What accounts for this mis-match between what leading industries say they want and what legislators say industry wants? Are legislators and bureaucrats that out of touch? Is it a function of Louisiana still being dominated by a very old, extractive industry like the oil business? Is it simply a cynical move by Louisiana’s status quo to keep its citizens “in their place” as some maintain? (That is, that the good old boy network, which resembles something like a twentieth-century plantation owner network, prefers its citizens to be focused on practical job skills rather than higher-order thinking.) Given the effect, conspiratorial causes sometimes seem like the best explanation.

(Let me be clear: I don’t think conspiracies are very good explanations. And, I think, everyone I know who actually works within a university or school is doing their best both to maintain the mission of the university while also serving this additional requirement by the state. It just seems like an oddity, an historical oddity, that we have to do both, and I wonder how we will consider this period in the future.)

Surely someone somewhere — someone outside the political and educational mainstream — is taking notes on these transformations and is doing some good investigative work. I don’t know that I am particularly suited to answering any of those questions. What I do know is that I really like teaching, and when my class size is small enough that I get to know students individually, I can teach them as individuals; I can offer them specific feedback on what they know and what they know how to do and what they don’t know and what they don’t know how to do … yet. The joy of teaching, I think, is seeing someone do something for the first time without their realizing, or really believing, they could do it. It’s like watching your own child’s face light up when they take their first step or when they go to their first competition.

It is the joy of being a parent, of being a part of someone else’s life. And, frankly, I just don’t see how you can quantify that in a way that will feed a spreadsheet properly.

[Learning without Frontiers]( Noam Chomsky and Ken Robinson are going to share the same stage? I want to go.

New Kinds of Value

In a post in the HBR blog, Ron Johnson, who is now CEO of J. C. Penney’s but once was VP for Retail at Apple, makes the case that retailers, and I assume he is thinking specifically about his current context, must offer customers more than price if they are to survive and compete against the big box discounters. He notes that the Apple Stores were not successes at first: no one came to the Genius Bar. But in a few years, they had to put an appointment system in place to manage the flow of people to the Bar. He also notes that employees in the stores do not work on commission, which frees them to focus on being with customers, trying to understand them.

The lesson for other retailers, Johnson argues, is not to mimic the Apple Store in various ways but to re-think their business. The question retailers should be asking themselves is not how do we increase profits or revenues but “How do we reinvent the store to enrich our customers’ lives?” His analogy is to Steve Jobs, who did not push hard on the development of the iPhone in order to achieve some percentage of market share but because he wanted to re-invent the phone.

The notion of creating value, especially new types of value, is a bit of a cliché in business circles, but time passes despite cliches about time passing. I think much the same kind of fundamental re-thinking of education is called for, but, and here’s the catch, it should be done in a dialogue with faculty. Faculty, perhaps better than anyone else in higher education (and perhaps not), know what it means to create and distribute knowledge: it’s our job to do both. More importantly, faculty are, by definition, almost always the ones most often in direct contact with the various forms of distribution as we both teach classes and submit our materials to publishing outlets for review, evaluation, and eventual distribution.

But I did say it was a dialogue, and one thing I can say to my fellow faculty members is that I am most happy right now with the freshman honors English course I teach. Why? Because as I worked through the process of possibly making it a hybrid course for my university, the change in the infrastructure of the course as well as the folks in Distance Learning at my university, demanded that I answer some very basic questions. “Begin with the end in mind,” they reminded me, which got me thinking about what were the core lessons I wanted students to learn. Suddenly I found myself re-thinking the way I teach writing and the way my students think about writing. I will detail the new structure for the course in an upcoming entry, but for now I can report that I am delighted with the results. And so are the students.

Listen to This

Every folklorist I know should listen to the Radio Lab short podcast entitled “Loop the Loop” which tells the story of Lincoln Beachey, a daredevil pilot who established many of the genres of air show acrobatics. More importantly, he is all but forgotten to history, except for his presence in a jump rope rhyme:

Lincoln Beachey had a little dream
To go up to Heaven in a flying machine
The machine broke down and down he fell
He thought he’d go to Heaven but he went to…

As is often the case, Radio Lab does good work here. If this podcast excited you, then you should also listen to their podcast on Tic-Tac-Toe where they first sent listeners to ask for the game by that name, and got few results, but when they sent listeners out to demonstrate the game, they found it was quite common. I plan to use this with my field research class as an example of being careful how you ask a question. (There’s a lot more to unpack there, but I think most of my folklore colleagues will get it.)

By the way, RadioLab people, if you are reading this, then you don’t always get it right. Your hosts completely blew it in the episode on talking to machines when they belittled the computer scientists for staying inside too much and not knowing enough about the “real world.” Hmmm. Sounds a lot like the pot calling the kettle black when you have your show narrated by two guys sitting in a  sound booth. That is, we all have our moments when we spend too much time inside — be it rooms or just our heads — and when we need to get outside, whatever that outside may be.