May I have an hour of your time?

If you’re an academic, perhaps a better question might be: “Do you have an hour of time?”

If you do (and you’re interested in meditation, attention, and mindfulness) I’d humbly suggest watching the following talk of Tenzin Palmo’s:

This woman, for a number of years, lived alone inside of a mountain cave. During this time she meditated for most of the day; only stirring to care for the minimum requirements of her body.

She probably knows  a thing or two about mindfulness — at least from my perspective.  But, by her own admission, she still has a long way to go.

Which brings up an interesting point… when do we become ‘aware’? How many caves must we mediate in to reach mindfulness? How long will it take?

The Buddha says we will all get there someday. But that’s not my point here. When we view mindfulness as a goal (rather than a process), we rob ourselves of the experience that promotes it.  And it is precisely the experience — the  struggle — that gifts us a greater awareness.  Struggling with the troubles of our mind that keep us distracted is just as much a part of mindfulness as crying is a part of love.  There is no shortcut here.

Forcing our students to close their laptops in class, reading five-minute opinion pieces on mindfulness published along side of flashing ad banners on the internet, or trying to mono-task while clutching to a fundamentally multi-tasked life are all simply recipes for disappointment. These ideas are not inherently bad, but they do presuppose attention as a ends — grasping for a state of attention blinds us to the fact that grasping was what delivered us to a state of distraction in the first place. Palmo wisely says this is like drinking salt water — the more we drink the thirstier we become.



If you’ll allow me to extent this concept to diversity for a moment. . .  Where do we go to find diversity? How do we get there? How long does it take?

If I can use myself as an example…

I’ve walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery Alabama.

And protested authors when they give talks at Virginia Tech.

But I couldn’t tell what it’s like to be black in America. I can only tell you what people have told me when I’ve listened to their experiences.


I’ve studied Aikido for a number of years under the supervision of a dojo located in Okazaki, Japan.

And I’ve volunteered my time to help construct a pagoda in the Nichiren tradition.

But I couldn’t tell you what it’s like to be Japanese. I can only tell you what people have told me when I’ve listened to their experiences.


I’ve protested the conditions illegal immigrants are held under in the United States.

And I’ve protested the US’s involvement in Central America that supports many of the systems that spur that same immigration.

But, again, I couldn’t tell you what it’s like to be Salvadoran. I can only tell you what people have told me when I’ve listened to their experiences.

If I’ve buried the lead here, let me clarify. Diversity, just like mindfulness, isn’t a destination. It’s an experience. It’s a process.  And for it to be, we must practice it.

It’s a little like what Mr. Rogers taught me about love:

“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

So when it comes to teaching, how do we accept our students for who they are? How do we… diversify? Thich Nhat Hanh has a suggestion that might resonate with you:

“If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.”

So with all this in mind, I’ll give you my diversity statement. It’s not written for other professors or to help me get hired. It (or something close to it) is simply what I’ll be including in my syllabi from now on:


I don’t know you.

I can’t emphasize that enough.

At the beginning of the semester, I don’t know your story. I don’t know where you come from or what you bring with you. I don’t know your beliefs, your values, your hopes, your dreams, your fears, or your passions. And I certainly don’t think I can figure that out by looking at you.

But I do know this. If you’re bold enough to express these things this semester — I’ll listen.  And, together, we’ll figure out how this class can fit into your story.



Commoditizing Diversity

It’s regrettable, I think that when science discusses cultural or ethnic diversity in our society, that it does so through the lens of “value”. What is diversity worth to us?  The question rarely seems to be what does diversity do for us as humans or how can it enrich our lives? How can it make us better people more fully aware of ourselves and our place in this world? But rather, science tends to be co-opted into asking how much can diversity produce? What is its economic value?  How can someone (or some corporation) leverage diversity for its benefit?

We have a sickness in our society and the root cause isn’t racism or sexism or any other -ism. These things are the symptoms of the trouble. Instead, the trouble lies in our collective norms that allow these types of things — things that we cannot accept as inherent in ourselves — to be placed onto others.  Psychology might call this behavior negative projection.  Sociology may call it otherization.  Whatever name it goes by in your area of interest, it does seem to be something that is here to stay as a part of the human psyche — something that the wisdom of religious and philosophical thinkers have been warning us about for thousands of years:


A Contemporary Summary of the Sermon on the Mount


The fact that, as a society, we tend to find trouble with racism and sexism (to name only two) is a profound reflection on the values that we tacitly normalize and promote — the things that are hard to understand that we’re engaging in because most everyone else does also.  In the desert, every mound of sand looks the same.


White Lab Coats. Seriously?


I’ve never donned a white coat in my laboratory.

Some days I’ll wear laser safety goggles.

Some days a t-shirt and pants will do.

On others, a slightly nicer collared-shirt is in.

Maybe even work clothes.

And on rare occasions, a wetsuit.

But never a white coat.



For some people, science is wearing a white lab coat. But that’s not how I do it.

Its surprising, I think, that some people assume that’s what scientist do — hide behind lab coats:

“… I propose giving a name to a new kind of theory of learning which will reflect the fact that human experience gives all of us a vaster store of knowledge about learning than has been accumulated by all white-coated academics in their laboratories. ”   — Seymour Papert

Oh, please, Seymour…

Scientists gain and develop knowledge through experience – it’s no different for us than anyone else. And we gain experience by experiencing. There’s no short cut.

Year after year I’m amazed at the wide array of skills that are required to place myself in the path of new experiences. This is a point that I like to make very clear to my students. If they are to become engineers: the good jobs, the interesting jobs, the jobs worth having require far more skills than can be taught during the undergraduate experience. Each student need to develop a mindset that allows them to set aside experince limiting attachments.  In that way, the course of their lives — what’s needed in the moment — can be the best teacher they’ll ever have.

One of the ways I convey this in my Introduction to Engineering course is by coming to lecture dressed exactly as my day requires me to be dressed. Some days this is a suit and tie, while others… well you saw the list above.

I’ve learned never to directly address why I come to class dressed in such a wide variety of outfits. I just come, deliver the lecture and carry on as normal. The lesson that is planned is secret. It only unfolds when the time is right. And experience has shown that I don’t have to wait long before one of the more boisterous students unwittingly calls for it:

“Some days you come dressed in tattered jeans and a t-shirt, and now you’re wearing a suit? What’s your deal? What do you do with your days?!”



Now I have their attention.


I could have lectured /at them/ for weeks on the types of skills needed to be a successful engineer. But with this one question – and a well timed answer – I can convey the depth and breadth of the work covered by the term “engineering” or “research scientist”… at least as it pertains to me. 

And isn’t that the point?

I’m barely an expert at what I do. How can I genuinely represent myself as an expert on what it takes to be successful for other people?  In other fields? In different times, places, cultures?

I can’t.

All I can do is be to genuine with myself and with my students. That’s the best, most authentic version of my teaching — sharing my experiences with my students  so they can learn from them. If it were anything else, they could get it from a book.  

And perhaps some of the things I have to say about my experiences as a researcher don’t apply to them? But that’s OK too.  The lesson for these students is that I’m teaching how I learn from my experiences — by example.

Every day is different. What’s required of each and every one of us if we are to be successful– no matter your background or discipline  —  is a detachment from what we thought we knew the day before; detachment from the things we *want* to be true.

I’d really like science to just require a white lab coat. But it doesn’t. It requires a great deal more. And that’s one of the best lessons I can hope to leave my students with: the cost (and rewards) of dedication.



The “basics” have saved my life, more than once.

The “basics” are a critical foundation to learning any new subject.  They’ve saved my life on more than one occasion.

For four years of my life, I professionally taught people how to fly airplanes.

L-29 Delfin
The L-29 Delfin was the Soviet jet-trainer of choice during the early Cold War period.

It’s something I’m surprisingly good at.  The regional FAA examiner used to refer to me as “Ace”*, not because of my flying skills, but rather, because of the quality students I sent to him for evaluation.  During those four years, not a single one of my students failed: a nearly unheard of statistic.

* [Simply “Brandon” would have been more to my liking, but it’s not something you get to choose in that line of work.]

While immensely proud of the hard work my students put in to achive that pass-rate, it’s not what I’m most proud of during that period of my life. The high point of me is that two students (and myself) are still alive today because my instructors took the time and care that was needed to ensure I had the best understanding and practice of the “basics” when I was learning how to fly. I’m proud of them — my mentors. I’m a difficult student. It took a lot to put up with me.

Without that I most assuredly would not be around today to write this post.

Some background: Pilots, as a matter of their basic flight worthiness, train for emergencies. One such emergency that is often practiced is the event of an in-flight engine failure. The public is most likely familiar with this idea from the wet landing of US Airways Flight 1549:

(C) NY Daily News / Maria Bailey
(C) NY Daily News / Maria Bailey

One of the most deadly times an in-flight engine failure can occur is immediately after take off when no suitable locations for ditching the airplane (like the middle of the Hudson River) exist directly ahead of the plane.  In this scenario,  the pilot has only one option: attempt a u-turn back towards the airport.

This is such a difficult maneuver that it has earned the nickname “the impossible turn” in piloting circles.  Statistics show that somewhere between 80% and 90% of aircraft that are forced into this maneuver of last resort crash — typically with fatal results for everyone aboard.

Here is a video of a successful attempt:

While acting as a flight instructor, this happened to me twice.

I should stress though that this is an extremely rare event. It occurs in a statistical sense to general aviation type aircraft (“small planes”) once every 50,000 hours of flight.  In both cases the engine failure was a result of easily avoidable, poor maintenance practices — but that’s a story for another time.

On to the basics…. To execute this turn, the pilot must possess a  solid foundational knowledge of the aerodynamics involved and an even better “feel” for the aircraft — after all, this is a kinesthetic exercise. It’s a high standard to begin with, but as an added complication, the pilot must be able to recall these things in a split second and act on them under the stress of an incipient fatal crash.

Not only does the positioning, speed, and orientation of the aircraft in its takeoff configuration give a window of only a few seconds to react successfully to an engine failure at this point, but the execution of the maneuver must be near-perfect. For this to work, the pilot has to push the aircraft to the very edge of its operational envelope and hold it there. Any deviation will  result in one of two things happening:

  • The plane will stall and crash, or
  • The plane will run out of altitude (energy) before making it back to the airport (and crash)

For me, I only was able to perform at this this level thanks to practicing the fundamental skill set that makes up pilotage… the boring stuff… the “rote” movements of flying an airplane… the basics… over and over and over again. And doing so while in the presence of an experienced instructor that cared enough to provide an honest critique of my performance (over and over and over again).  It was frustrating and (at the time) it didn’t seem to have much of a purpose, but looking back on it, I’m grateful my instructors had the wisdom to hold me to a higher standard than most do. I would imagine my two students are grateful as well.

Some activities in life require training to a standard of “right and wrong”. Getting too creative, too early can be dangerous.  That’s not to say we can’t develop or grow past this point with experience, wisdom, and creativity, but as instructors, it’s our duty to know where and when this is advisable for a student.



Had I been a railway minister…

For a moment let’s consider a pair of strange bedfellows: the origins of popular culture in the English speaking world and Mohandas Gandhi’s views on the operation of India’s national rail system during the British Raj and what they can teach us about teaching.

For a time, I considered American culture to be the birthplace of most things that modernity considers to be entertainment — rock music, motion pictures (animation in particular), television (both the invention of, and programing for), and the spectacle of contemporary sporting events.

But the idea of entertainment as a cultural phenomenon — the notion that a person’s life should include structured leisure — is a product of the establishment of a broad class of skilled and semi-skilled laborers in (roughly)  Georgian era England.  Of course, laborers of all skill levels have existed throughout human history, but this particular period in English history brings with it a troubling reliance of these workers on a market economy for their survival.

At this time in history, a laborer is charged with the creation of a single item or component that is later used by the larger economy. In compensation for this specialised item, the laborer is provided money which can be exchanged for goods that form the basis of person’s existence (e.g.  food, shelter, clothing). This model of “earning a living” was a stark contrast to the  the subsistence labor that dominated the feudal period of the previous twenty-some centuries in which a laborer was materially invested in the direct satisfaction of his or her own basic needs. That is, they worked directly to grow or construct the wide variety of items needed to sustain their existence. Specialization and trade was, broadly speaking, a secondary concern when considering how to support oneself.

The decline of feudalism and the rise of the modern market economy generated the concept of an apprenticeship or of “learning a trade” — many of which took periods of time commensurate with earning first, second, and terminal degrees in the modern higher education system of the United States. Here for the first time, we find a formalized model of a professional (i.e. non-liberal) education structure in society.  And while schools, as we know them with stratified levels and grades given based on performance, that taught the trades came later (thanks a lot, Carigee :/ ) my point is simply we find people teaching other people how to earn a living by way of exchange — labor for know-how — and doing it in a way that commoditizes education.

But what motivation do we find to pursue X-career over Y-career during this period of time?  In modern times, we are inundated with idea that we should choose an educational path in life that provides us with a career that maximizes our “lifetime earnings” (thanks a lot, Collegeboad :/ ).  In the villages of 18th and 19th century England where identity was still broadly based in family and community, we find a slightly different motivation epitomized by Michael Wood’s presentation of a grievance report from that time, the Condition of the Framework Knitters (1845) (another discussion here) where he quotes a John Lover of Smeeton:

“There is no race of people under the sun so depressed as we are, who work the hours we do, for the money we get. It would be my delight to bring my family up to a school; I cannot bear the thought of bringing a family up in ignorance so as not to read a little.”

It’s amazing, I think, that Mr. Lover’s concern isn’t for the luxuries that an increased wage may afford him — a trap I have personally found my thinking stuck in from time-to-time — but rather for the benefits of a liberal education for his family.  So much so that this is the point he decides to highlight in airing his treatment by the textile industry.

In fact, we find that the push towards prioritizing liberal types of education to be the foundation of the culture of modern entertainment — both in terms of the leisure time and wages it affords  by way of class organization but also by the shift of identity towards the individual. Its interesting to note that this shift is paradoxical in that it is away from the identity of place and community that sparked the prioritization of the liberal education in the first place. The loss of which is a theme that still resonates in popular British entertainment culture:

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality
And it’s not here
It disappeared
I’m all lost in the supermarket

The Clash


Let’s consider for a moment that most course work in modern tertiary education is liberal in the sense that, while some may be more professionally or technically oriented than others, it all attempts to save the beneficiary from a life of latter-day toil (retail?).  So yes, even though, as educators, we are still acting in the framework handed down to us from the 18th century of a commoditized educational scheme, we’ve at least gotten past educating our students into becoming (literally) part of the machine:

Operating a Hand Frame
Operating a Hand Frame (Framework Knitting)

How can we, as educators, ensure that we’re not feeding the paradoxical cycle I described in the last section? How can we ensure our students are actually liberated, not just in the sense of the career they pursue, but as more fulfilled humans — complete with a sense of place and community? And not seduced by the comforts that a toil-liberating education (and frankly, the accompanying social class) affords them? In a nod to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, I might say: More Freder, Less Fredersen.

I think Thomas and Brown’s A New Culture of Learning, in the vein of Campbell’s “networked learning”, is pushing us towards thinking like this. It details the necessities which they consider to be essential (such as free access to lots of information), but they craft the collection of these items as a cultural shift: moving from a teaching-based approach to education towards a learning-based approach.


But I can’t help but think that this is going to require more than just a shift in policy by the instructor. It is going to take a shift in expectations by the students as well.

For example, amenity-based college recruitment that is so common presently, might boost enrollment numbers (and profit), but what signals does it send to the student?  Why, as a society, do we go to college?

In my mind this business seems to be going in the wrong direction — more Fredersen, less Freder. And I’m afraid that in this collegiate environment, focusing on classes that inspire students, is dangerously close to classes that entertain students, and that (paradoxically) is a dangerous indulgence in class (the social kind).

I don’t have a solution to this problem. I don’t feel qualified to comment on it. Perhaps it’s enough for now that I think about it.

I might end, though, by quoting someone who probably would be qualified to comment on it — famous for not only his efforts in dissolving class, but doing so (in part) by encouraging the burning of fabric woven on the same machines and by the same people we discussed in the last section: Mohandas Gandhi.

Gandhi was a bit of a blogist for his time. He wrote a lot, and published a great deal of it.  But more importantly he thought a lot, and he did so from the perspective of a villager living in India. Despite being of reasonably high caste, and a London-educated  lawyer, he lived as a villager would, worked as one, dressed as one, and traveled as one.

It is his musings on traveling that I would like to draw your attention to because I think they have the most bearing on the thoughts of Campbell, Thomas, Brown, and Kuh.

Traveling by third-class rail in British India was notoriously troubling. Of it, Gandhi had this to say:

“On the way passengers got for tea tannin water with filthy sugar and a whitish looking liquid mis-called milk which gave this water a muddy appearance. I can vouch for the appearance, but I cite the testimony of the passengers as to the taste.

Not during the whole of the journey was the compartment once swept or cleaned. The result was that every time you walked on the floor or rather cut your way through the passengers seated on the floor, you waded through dirt.

The closet was also not cleaned during the journey and there was no water in the water tank.

Refreshments sold to the passengers were dirty-looking, handed by dirtier hands, coming out of filthy receptacles and weighed in equally unattractive scales. These were previously sampled by millions of flies. I asked some of the passengers who went in for these dainties to give their opinion. Many of them used choice expressions as to the quality but were satisfied to state that they were helpless in the matter; they had to take things as they came.


On Indian trains alone passengers smoke with impunity in all carriages irrespective of the presence of the fair sex and irrespective of the protest of non-smokers. And this, notwithstanding a bye-law which prevents a passenger from smoking without the permission of his fellows in the compartment which is not allotted to smokers.”

At this point in his career, he  clearly lays the blame for the conditions at the feet of the Raj:

“Among the many suggestions that can be made for dealing with the evil here described, I would respectfully include this: let the people in high places, the Viceroy, the Commander-in-Chief, the Rajas, Maharajas, the Imperial Councillors and others, who generally travel in superior classes, without previous warning, go through the experiences now and then of third class travelling. We would then soon see a remarkable change in the conditions of third class travelling and the uncomplaining millions will get some return for the fares they pay under the expectation of being carried from place to place with ordinary creature comforts.  “



But after India won independence, he referred back to these comments and experiences with advice for the newly free India. Speaking at a prayer meeting shortly after Indian independence he spoke metahpoicially of the challenges independence would bring and related that to the experience (that most everyone had) of traveling by rail in India.

“The passengers should consider the railways as their own property. They should keep the trains clean. They should not spit and smoke in the trains and should not pull the chain without real need. And not a single passenger should travel without ticket. Then I would be able to say that we have attained true independence. “

The idea here is that the people who use a service, can collectively take responsibility for the level of service that is rendered. A consummate message in Gandhi’s thinking: if, as a group, we stop treating third class like it is a “third class”, we can all ride in a better environment. And even though he’s speaking of India here, I can imagine him speaking to many of the students that I have had in my classes — the message is the same. Professors have their part in the student’s liberation, but so do the students. None of us can move forward until we all move forward.






If you can’t find the sucker at the table, you’re it

A good portion of the work in any financial transaction is the valuation of the items or services being exchanged.  Basic economic theory teaches us that actors in a marketplace purchase things not because they are intrinsically valuable.  Rather, transactions occur because of the impression  of increased value — the belief that one is better off with the thing obtained than what was traded for it.This is one method of measuring value: the utility to an individual as seen through that person’s eyes.  

The somewhat infamous adage that adorns this blog entry’s title is a concise (albeit coarse) way to remind us of this facet of human nature. Value is constructed. And it is constructed in such a way that our minds can and often do play tricks on us. Who among us hasn’t been lead into disappointment by something we found ourselves so sternly desiring in a period leading up to our disillusionment?  

Our awareness of value is to be trusted only insofar as we might trust the personal  experiences that we draw on to  generate this awareness. These experiences form the basis of any valuation we can hope to generate. We cannot see past the veil that cloaks what we have not experienced.  

In an extended way, this is what Gardner Campbell argues for in his article on Networked Learning. Students cannot know what they have not been exposed to. So why not give them the maximal opportunity to learn by exposing them to a variety of educational opportunities that necessarily include a wider (and perhaps deeper)  set of experiences than the traditional classroom /  lecture based methods?

It sounds great. But perhaps, like the adage reminds us, we should spend some time reflecting on why this sounds appealing to us as educators? What metric do we use to evaluate Campbell’s assertions?  And what types of personal experiences lead us to form this metric?

If you are considering a PhD degree in pursuit of the goal of becoming a professor in order to educate, you have something very much in common with anyone else on the same path . You have acquired a great deal of schooling! So much so that you are now an expert of your chosen subject. In this way, it is likely that you are evaluating Campbell’s assertions in contrast to what you have personally experienced thus far in your education — what worked well for you or your peers, or what didn’t work so well.

But let us remember, just like the students bounded in their learning by a lack of experience with URL’s that Campbell describes in his article, we as the next generation of educators are bounded by what our educational systems have been able to collectively provide us.

And while approaches like Kun’s or Campbell’s might seem extraordinary, they (and the basis we used to evaluate them) are products of two major social revolutions in the occidental world: The creation of a “liberated” class in England during the period of the The Inclosure Acts, and the creation of the merchant class in the various city-states of the Italian Renaissance during the  waring states period. The combination of which, though time, gives rise to what we now know as the Industrial Revolution, modern capitalism, and democratic rule — all of which give rise to the need for, and the negative pressures on, higher education.

Most every academic is a scholastic product of this chain of events. The need for academics in society (both liberal and technical) are intrinsically linked with these historic events — you can’t have one without the other.  Our education as educators, and by extension, the pedagogy we employ — no mater radical it may seem — have for the most part been encapsulated by this impetus for an academic class and the education they can provide fro m the very beginning.

So if Campbell and Kun point out the need for students to be exposed to a broader range of scholastic experiences, I would carry this one further and call on my peers to take control of their range exposure to life experiences in an attempt to steer them away from traditional academic venues. That is, if we truly want to transform higher education and have a metric against which we can measure that transformation, we cannot expect this to happen in a classroom, or with methods that were developed classroom-adjacent.