One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands has this lyric as a refrain:
“Change is the thing that is what we do, change is the change that’s changing you…”
It’s surreal, not really logical, but that’s why I like it — it emphasizes the disorienting quality of change. Theorizing the causes and nature of change has been a big project for contemporary philosophers, and there’s no reason why educators shouldn’t incorporate some deep reflection on change as part of their teaching. I approached the Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown reading from this perspective.
Okay, some of their musings on contemporary change struck me as glib, and my first reaction was to fall back on the same basic critique I’ve had with many of our readings: in their embrace of the new, they fail to acknowledge the unique character of older teaching methods that can’t simply be updated and made more accessible through the, uhhhh, magic of technology. (Although I hated it at the time, I’m actually glad my sophomore year Medieval Literature professor made me memorize the opening to Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English). But the project of rendering change visible can not only equip students to deal with the world beyond the classroom (which is, for better or worse, in a state of constantly-accelerating flux), it can offer a good philosophical message about the status of knowledge: facts are constructed. That doesn’t mean they can’t be true, but they are the result of methods and inquiry which are themselves a product of human innovation. Bodies of knowledge change, presumptions are overhauled — and if you’ve read Thomas Kuhn, you know that sometimes entire scientific paradigms shift so dramatically that we can speak of qualitative breaks in our shared understanding of the world.
Focusing learning programs on this notion of change and inherent instability could (and maybe they should) represent a break in pedagogy where students come to a deep awareness of their own agency in producing knowledge. Wikipedia is a great example of transparent knowledge production, and using Wikipedia edit records as a way to emphasize the constantly-changing, actively-generated nature of knowledge is an interesting idea. This awareness shouldn’t be limited to philosophy students with a focus on epistemology, the study of knowledge itself. The tenuous status of knowledge and informational authority is too present in the real world right now, and I suspect that ambiguity is only on the rise. (Unfortunately… I’m thinking of fake news…)
Meanwhile, I have no problems at all with Ellen J. Langer’s article — except that, maybe, its emphasis on presence and focus seems to challenge the technology-happy work we’ve done so far! I insist that my students put away their internet-connected devices at the beginning of class, not because I inherently dislike smartphones and laptops (that’s another issue), but because I want to create the conditions for mindfulness. Her observations on mindfulness and adaptability to change really hit home for me. Doing coursework in an interdisciplinary PhD program means constantly adapting to not only new content, but new ways of thinking about things. I didn’t major in any of the departments that I take ASPECT courses in, so I often find myself sitting in history, political science or cultural studies classes, attempting to grasp the methodological / epistemological assumptions of historians, political scientists, and so on. (Stuff that some people picked up as undergrads and master’s students, to be sure). The only way I’ve accomplished this while maintaining a sense of clarity and consistency is by paying very close attention to context. I adopt the idea that I’m coming into new disciplines not just to learn the explicit content, but to grok the assumptions that professors and long-term students of a discipline take for granted. This has been completely necessary whenever I’ve encountered quantitative methods… I’ve learned that those who see themselves as math and numbers people somehow appear to intuitively grasp contextual frameworks in ways that I don’t. That’s a bit unfair, but math becomes much easier for me when I try to explain those frameworks to myself before learning a new equation or concept. (It means I spend less time thinking about “why” we use a certain equation, who came up with these methods anyway, and how, and so on…). Hopefully that makes sense. The project of becoming aware of context is so, so important when trying to make sense of content in environments subject to rapid change. Mindfulness is a key component of this.
By the way, all this thinking about change and mindfulness reminds me of a dumb joke about a Buddhist monk and a hot dog vendor. It starts with a cheesy one-liner and then gets even worse.
A Buddhist goes up to a hot dog vendor and says “make me one with everything.”
When he asks for change, the vendor replies: “change comes from within.”
And I’ll end this post here!
For anyone reading this not in GEDI class, here is the first article I’m responding to: http://www.newcultureoflearning.com/newcultureoflearning.pdf , pp. 39-49. The second is only available through the Virginia Tech network.
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