GEDI Post III: The Buddhist And The Hot Dog Vendor

[course assignment]

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 this 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 a lot of 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 not only to 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.

 

4 Comments

  • Faith Skiles says:

    Emma, as usual, I enjoyed reading your insights! I wish that I had read them a year ago when I started ASPECT and taken the same perspective as you into classes outside my discipline of history. I think I might have been, at least, a little less frustrated but probably still just as lost. I really too like, and haven’t thought of, the ways in which students have agency in producing knowledge, thank you for that insight as well. Moving away from paradigms of certainty and allowing for student to grasp an understanding of the tenuous nature of knowledge production, in any field, including “hard” sciences, should be an important part of any pedagogy. And, as a last note, I really wondered how the Buddhist monk and hot dog were going to come into this…change from within indeed.

  • Zhanyu (Grace) says:

    Really enjoyed reading your post! Lately, I’ve been following a science history documentary, and a recurring theme found in the history of various scientific fields has been the ever shifting paradigm in our understanding of the world. What was once considered ludicrous is now “established fact” – until we find new evidence to support some new paradigm, that is. I think it’s great that you’re approaching new fields by understanding the context and examining the underlying assumptions. We should be doing this all the time, and it serves as a great reminder to those who have been immersed their field forever to not take their current understanding for granted.

  • Amy Hermundstad says:

    Thanks for your post! I really enjoyed hearing your views of the readings this week. Your post reminded me of my fairly recent transition from engineering to engineering education. When I started in my new department (engineering education) I had to undergo quite the paradigm shift. In engineering, I focused on getting the correct (or at least better) answer, I practiced problems until I could consistently get the right answer, and I kind of just went through the motions. When I switched fields, I had to acknowledge my point of view and assumptions about the world around me. I had to learn a new way to do things and think about things. And it was a difficult transition for me. But it has been a very valuable transition for me so far. I really appreciated hearing about your experiences learning in a variety of fields and being aware of context when learning about content.

  • Nicole Arnold says:

    Isn’t it ironic that we are reading about mindfulness this week and yet some of the previous weeks have focused mainly on technology associated with learning? I find myself to be the most mindless version of myself when I’m scrolling through social media. Am I learning anything worthwhile? Probably not. Is it entertaining? Yes. I can mindlessly scroll through feeds for hours before I realize how much time has been wasted. Similarly I think that is one of the biggest challenges with using technology in the classroom and having all coursework put online. For some reason I am able to be more mindful when I have readings printed out and am reading them versus when I’m doing so online. I wonder if there is any literature on this? There are some of us that generally still prefer reading through a textbook or a hard copy of something rather than online.

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