Archive for the 'Education' Category



Delfest, Participatory Culture, and Life as Data

Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
-Rilke

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI spent this past weekend with a great group of friends in the Cumberland Water Gap, a rural area in Western Maryland where we were attending a Bluegrass music festival called Delfest. I’ve never actually been to a music festival of any sort (crazy it’s taken me this long!), so I didn’t have a lot of expectations coming into the weekend save having a good time and spending time outdoors.

The festival, in short, rocked, totally going beyond the pretty basic things I’d hoped for. It was pure summertime goodness; we saw great music, camped out at the foot of a mountain, went tubing down a river that looped around the grounds, made friends with strangers, and lost our sense of time for two days. (The answer to “What time is it?” was invariably: “it’s Del o’clock.”, or, every so often “ten to Del.”, and occasionally, “half past Del.”) And so a big part of being there was just about enjoying myself – getting some space from an increasingly busy, stressful and packed upcoming month, spending time with friends, soaking in the good vibes and remembering the spontaneity and adventure that can come with arriving in an open space with no real plans.

At the same time, the budding learning scientist in me was having a whole other experience of the festival. As someone planning on studying the learning that happens in informal environments, those outside of school and not traditionally thought of as ‘educational’, I was also viewing the event as part of what media scholar Henry Jenkins would call a Participatory Culture, and as what learning theorist Jim Gee calls a Semiotic Domain with an associated Affinity Space. All pretty high concepts for sure, each with their own useful nuances, but in the most basic sense I was seeing an open community of people dedicated to a particular idea or practice, in this case Bluegrass music, come together to do their thing, share and learn from each other (though likely not framing it as such) and in doing so define and redefine what that space means both in terms of its core practices as well as its broader culture and associated quirks.

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI saw amateurs working with experts – small jam circles of musicians with varied levels of talent playing around campfires with assorted string instruments where anybody could come and join in, contributing whatever they could even if it was just singing along or playing some simple chords, along with main-stage shows featuring artists recognized as being at the top of their trade, setting a (perhaps contested) standard for what good practice looks like in the community.

I saw plenty of things not immediately related to the musical practice itself but that emerged around it; the throwing of small, soft glowsticks amongst a concert-going crowd, each landing and then getting hurled up into the air again, fans dancing with wanton abandon in varied styles, substance use and perhaps abuse, and a do-it-yourself camping culture where people constructed elaborate tents, fires and meals. These are the sorts of things that give nuance, character and attitude to these kinds of informal spaces, and are an expression of the underlying values of the community – each points to a certain ethos or narrative endemic to the larger whole.

I noted various demographic groups as they became visible; low income local white folks from Appalachia that I’d associate with NASCAR and country music, “hippy” types in tie-die and dreadlocks, young professionals from DC, New York and other metropolitan areas, often working in politics, journalism or education (forgive the heuristics here) – as well as noticing those that were absent. I counted about 15 people of color and no one that was easily identifiable to me as queer while I was there out of what was easily over a thousand people.

And I reflected on what it meant for me to be doing pretty much all of this observation and analysis automatically, remembering a line that references Rilke from a great short piece by Mark Federman called The Tao of Thesis [pdf], about how one engages in thesis-level work:

“You will view the world and your entire existence through research-coloured glasses. The thesis process becomes less an effort to find answers, and more a vehicle through which you can live your question.”

My time at Delfest is interesting because it is one of several experiences that I’ve had as I near the beginning of my doctoral work where I started to consistently notice the world as data parsed by a particular lens, and it’s prompting me to wonder what it will be like to put on these glasses full time when I enter graduate school – what’s gained, what’s lost, and what the edges are to look out for when doing this strange exercise while still trying to live an integral life, one viewed through many lenses and that acknowledges the limitations of a singular viewpoint. I’m excited to find out.

Just in time learning, local politics and potentials in informed citizenry

Voting LeverSo I, like about 15% of New Yorkers, went to the polls today to vote in the Democratic Primary for a number of city wide as well as borough-specific elections.  Among them were the office of Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, City Council seats, etc.  AKA, the kind of stuff that most of the public just doesn’t care about enough to vote on, let alone get informed about (especially since the Democratic mayoral candidate will likely get squashed by Bloomberg).  In my years of becoming more civic minded, I’ve begun to vote regularly in these “smaller” elections, and have come up against a bit of a hurdle.  While I’m motivated to vote in these elections, realize that my vote will make a real difference in deciding who gets into office, and understand that these politicians have probably the most impact on the issues immediate to my city ranging from education and real estate development to local environmental laws and criminal justice, I just can’t seem to get motivated enough to actually follow these races.

And so tonight I found myself in the familiar situation of arriving at the Brooklyn Museum (best polling place ever) not really knowing much about the people on the ballot.  Last time this happened I figured that I should use the resources I had at hand to become an at least somewhat informed voter, so I sat down on the floor, took out my iPhone, and painstakingly reviewed various articles about the candidates on its small screen.

Times Election Page

This time, I thankfully had my laptop with me, and using the museum’s free wifi, was able to do critical last minute research to inform my decisions.  I checked the sites of various local organizations that I know to see who they endorsed, as well as the local section of the Times to get their take on who would be best for various offices.  Armed with a much greater understanding of who the people on the ballot were and where they stood on various issues, I entered one of those classic New York polling booths, made my selection, and pulled the lever with a sense that I had not only done my civic duty by voting, but didn’t waste my vote as a result of being entirely uninformed.

Continue reading ‘Just in time learning, local politics and potentials in informed citizenry’

On Obama’s Speech to America’s Students

Obama Speech to America's StudentsRecently on our family listserv, we had a little back and forth about Obama’s recent speech to students across America, with most giving positive reviews.  I thought it was fine, but had a bunch to add, and to critique, so I thought I’d share here as well.

I agree that the speech was really wonderful, and important, but do have a bone to pick with Obama on this one.  Hear me out.

Throughout the entire speech the predominant theme was that youth need to take responsibility for their own education.  Don’t drop out.  Don’t disrespect your teachers.  Do the work even if it may not seem relevant.  And above all, it’s ultimately up to you whether you succeed or not.  Generally good messages, but really only good messages for students.

For society at large, we know, however, that “it takes a village”, to quote an old African proverb, and that the village that was put in charge of education has failed.  It has failed because it was designed for a different world, and has been ornery in the face of adaptation.  It has failed through cutting costs, it has failed through irrelevant content, it has failed by favoring teaching methods that are at best boring and at worst antagonize young people to the idea of learning.  It has failed to realize that it needs to teach attitudes and orientations as opposed to facts and figures.  And it’s a failure that Obama didn’t mention a word about, glossing over this ossified aspect of American society using a fail safe mantra of rugged American individualism when what the education system really needed was a serious jolt about how this is a problem of communities and systems, of parent involvement and teacher training and of fear in the face of special interests that control testing and textbooks, as opposed to just giving a pep talk to kids saying that they should take their studies more seriously.  After all, if you were given the system that they were, would you?

When taken in the larger context, Obama certainly said some nice things, but no where near enough.  This was a fine thing for the president to say to young people on their first day back to school, but if this President wants to make any impression on me when it comes to education, he’ll have to say, and do, much much more.  This was his first day of school to me, and he did alright.  An A for effort and showing up.  We’ll see what his grades are like, though, at the end of the year.

Photo courtesy of CNN.

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