Monday, April 27, 2009

Confusion and Learning

A common misconception about the meanings of words like teaching and learning is that learning and teaching occur when the teachers tell the students what they need to know, and then the students remember it.

Those of us who have been students should know better -- very, very few people ever learn this way. We forget what we memorized for that test. We parrot stuff back to teachers without necessarily understanding what it is we're saying or why we're saying it. (Those freaks among us who remember all this stuff -- a trifling percentage of the population -- do very well on game shows, but with startling frequency, don't do so hot at creative or analytical work.)

When do we learn? When we have to figure something out for ourselves, we learn, and remember it well. When we have to explain something to someone else, we often find we learn it pretty well. When we use knowledge and apply it to problems, we learn pretty well, then, too.

What's interesting -- but often unnoticed -- about all of these situations is that they involve confusion. You start off confused about something, but work it out on your own, until you reach understanding, and then you know it forever (or until your next head injury).

One mark of a sharp, well-trained mind is that it's comfortable during moments of confusion, and has learned to see them as okay. But a lot of us treat confusion as a bad thing -- something to be avoided. Students don't want to be confused, and teachers often (figuratively) wring their hands in despair when they realize their students are confused about something. But in a class where learning is happening, some confusion is inevitable -- it's the first step in the learning process. First, you think Thomas Kuhn makes no sense, but you plug on and try to make sense of him. If you keep at it, eventually you get it, and then you've learned something. (I'm not saying that all confusion is good. Just as there are good and bad types of fat, some types and causes of confusion are terrible for you. But a lot of the stuff that causes complaints is good fat, or good confusion, and unfairly indicted.)

The best ways to eliminate confusion in a class are often bad for you: The teacher can have you do things you already know how to do, or she can give you such clear step-by-step instructions for everything that you can surf the class on autopilot with -- as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix puts it -- "no need to think." If the teacher instead asks students to figure something out, confusion is inevitable, at least until learning sets in.

Some people think that procedural confusion -- confusion about what to do or how to do it -- is among the bad-fat confusions. I used to think that, but now I'm not so sure. Lately, I've been doing little experiments to see how well students learn things when instructions are vague and fuzzy (some of my readers will have doubtless noticed). I give students the sorts of missions they'll get in a real workplace ("Hey, Bob. Write me a press release!") and the sorts of instructions one usually gets in those environments ("How? Don't ask me. I don't know. Look it up somewhere.") I worked for more than a decade in the "real world" outside of academia, in government, in industry, in newsrooms, and this sort of thing is remarkably common. The people who get promoted, who do the best, are the ones who can manage in a sea of vague instructions, who can do solid, quality work without hand-holding. Generally, they're people who have learned the hard way that they are able to figure things out, if they really want to do so. They come up with their own instructions, and being their own masters, become masters. Even speaking for myself, I know that the stuff I've had to figure out in this way -- the instructions I've had to give myself -- are the most useful sets of instructions I've ever had.

So for about a year now, a few times a quarter, I throw students a fairly vague, work-style prompt, in this sort of spirit: "Hey, the president wants mission statements and department philosophies, in memo format, by 7 a.m. tomorrow. Go write one for us. ... No, I don't know what he's talking about either. Figure it out. And make it good." And then I see how they do. I grade easier on these than I do on other papers (because not to do so would be evil), and try to make sure they know where things went wrong afterwords, but for a while, at least, they have to come up with their own plans, instructions, and standards. My goal here isn't emotional security, but learning, either during the process or right after it, when they can see where things went wrong.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Kuhn, Popper, Mars, and Venus

As my student readers already know, I recently read a large stack of student papers about scientific philosophy, in which students were responding to essays by Kuhn, Popper, Masterman, and Bacon, authors who are not only tackling some tough questions but who are arguing with each other about them.

I was pleased that many students seemed to have understood many of the key points -- these writers aren't easy to understand. Even Popper, the clearest of them, has some tricky elements. It often takes students half a quarter to get this stuff, so I'm happy that so many have gotten the broad strokes so soon.


However, not surprisingly, some students had trouble understanding the readings. I bring this up not to embarrass them (it's difficult material, and I expect to be working with the class on understanding it for a while longer), but because I was struck by how differently men and women handled readings that were tough to understand:
  • In general, men who didn't understand the readings tended to be dismissive of them, saying things like, "Maybe it's just me, but anything that's this difficult to understand probably isn't worth understanding." Or they'd talk for a page or so about how pointless the whole exchange was.
  • Meanwhile, most of the women who had trouble understanding the readings tended to focus on the character of the debate, rather than the content of it. Their papers were about moods and tone and attitude, rather than about philosophy. As a result, I read pages and pages about how Kuhn and Popper didn't get along and couldn't play nice with each other.
I don't generally look for gender differences, but every once in a while the pattern is so pronounced, so demonstrable, that it hits me with the force of a full-hand slap. This one was interesting, in part, because the class in question is a 1SC class -- a science-writing class. If this were a regular English class, most of the women would be in the humanities, and most of the men in the sciences (that's how they usually are grouped, at any rate), so I wouldn't necessarily think it was a gender difference. In a regular English class, I might chalk it up to a disciplinary difference. Also, one might hypothesize that women in traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering and computer science might react and write more like men, either because they've learned to do so in adapting to the testosterone-laden environment, or because women who think more like men are more likely at this point to be interested in those fields, or for any number of other reasons. Well, that hypothesis -- and the disciplinary hypothesis -- have been, for me, falsified. Faced with difficult readings, men and women just seem to react differently. I have no idea what to make of all of this, but I do find it interesting.


I'd like to spend the rest of this post erasing those gender differences a little, by trying to explain some of what's going on in the readings, and addressing some of the common misunderstandings.

Getting most new readers to the point where they understand this stuff requires multiple steps, and this blog entry is just the latest. Here's a recap of the previous steps:
  1. Before the readings, I introduced the subject matter and some key terms that come up in the readings (falsification, gestalt, paradigm).
  2. The second step was the reading itself. Some people get it as soon as they read it, though they're rare. Truth be told, I didn't "get" it fully the first time, so I'm sympathetic to others who don't. (Specifically, I had a knee-jerk dislike for Kuhn, and favored Popper at first. It took me a while to realize that Kuhn had something useful to say.)
  3. The third step was the first class discussion on the subject.
  4. The fourth step was an in-class writing assignment. How was this a step toward understanding? It's a phenomenon called writing to learn. The basic idea here is that many people who think they don't understand the readings will start to understand them as they write about them -- as they explain the points, they start to comprehend them better. You've probably felt this before: On page 5 of a paper, you suddenly get something you didn't get when you were on page 1. That's what I'm talking about.
  5. The fifth step was a group paper, which attempted to capitalize on something called collaborative learning. This draws on the ancient observation that people learn more by trying to explain things to other people. If you've ever noticed that you learn more when teaching someone than when trying to learn the same thing yourself, that's the basic idea here. My hope was that as students worked with each other on the paper and tried to make sense of things, they'd try explaining their ideas to each other, and things would start to make more sense as they did so.
  6. The sixth step is feedback on the previous two steps, through comments on the papers.
  7. This is the seventh step, which is basically an attempt to address some of the common questions and errors I've seen.

Let's boil down the Kuhn-Popper debate as simply as we can. The debate centers on two apparently simple questions, both of which turn out to be quite tough:

1. How do we know if something is scientific? What the heck is the difference between science and non-science? Most people agree that astrology isn't scientific, but why isn't it?

2. What constitutes good scientific behavior? What should good scientists do?

Kuhn's answer is tricky, but Masterman explains it pretty well in the second half of her article, and Kuhn, in his last article, says she's right. So let's start with Kuhn's answer, as argued by Kuhn and explained by Masterman. (Yes, Masterman agrees with Kuhn. Those of you who said she disagrees with him mistook criticism of his wording for criticism of his ideas. She likes the ideas, but thinks he writes unclearly.)

Kuhn's and Masterman's answer, in a nutshell

Imagine this: A group of people invents a model for how the world works -- a picture, a graph, a diagram, an analogy. For instance, physicists like to explain gravity by describing spacetime as a rubber sheet; if you put objects on the rubber sheet, it warps, in much the same way that planets and stars warp spacetime. Climatologists and computer scientists, meanwhile, have designed elaborate computer models of our global climate system, and when they want to understand how climate works, they rely on those models.

Those models are darned useful. But it's important to remember one thing: The model isn't the universe. It's just a metaphor for the universe. If it's a decent metaphor, it'll help us think about the universe in mostly accurate ways, but it won't be a perfect fit. Most importantly, it won't be complete. The computer simulation of our climate will be missing a variable. The rubber sheet analogy is missing some spatial dimensions.

So what do our people do, after coming up with their model/metaphor, with its holes and occasional inaccuracies?

Answer: They try to fix it. They try to fill in the holes, tweak the metaphor to cover the inaccuracies, and so forth.

They keep doing these repairs until two things happen:

1) New discoveries and new tools, like new telescopes or better computer algorithms, make it clear that the current model/metaphor has a lot of inaccuracies or holes that still need fixing; and, at the same time, ...

2) Someone comes up with another model/metaphor that challenges the old one.

At this point, the two models have a kind of run-off contest. People start to try to stress-test them, to break them, to see which one holds up best under fire. When the new model/metaphor works better, they throw out the old one and start all over again with the surviving model.

Now, let's match up the above description with Kuhn's terms.
  • The people involved are scientists.
  • Their model/metaphor is a paradigm.
  • The practice of fixing the model/metaphor, filling in holes, is puzzle-solving. A scientific period in which scientists are mostly solving puzzles is called normal science. It's called normal because most of the time, that's what's going on.
  • The stress-testing that occurs during that run-off election between competing models is extraordinary science. (Note: Popper calls that stress-testing falsification.)
Kuhn argues that normal science (the gradual fixing of paradigms) is still science, and that it's a perfectly fine, even crucial activity. The stress-testing that occurs during the occasional revolution is also good science, but it's rare, and can't really happen all of the time.

And that brings us to his answer to the second question: What constitutes good science?

Kuhn basically says, "This is the way scientists seem to work. It seems to work just fine, so this is probably the right way to do it."

Popper, in a nutshell

Popper agrees with the description of science that Kuhn presents. He thinks that's pretty much what happens, and even, in fact, kind of figuratively smacks his forehead in a duh! gesture when he says that he'd completely missed some parts of that description before Kuhn pointed them out. About normal science, he essentially says, "Holy cow. You're right. Scientists solve puzzles most of the time. How silly of me to miss that!"

However, he thinks Kuhn is wrong to defend normal science -- the gradual fixing of models and paradigms. Sure, that's what most scientists do, he grants. But the ones who do that are not very good scientists.

According to Popper, all scientists should act, all the time, like they're in the middle of one of those revolutionary periods that Kuhn calls extraordinary science -- they should be constantly trying to falsify the models, and become increasingly suspicious of those that don't survive the tests.

Put another way, Popper looks at what scientists do when multiple, competing models are duking it out, sees how scientists prefer the ones that best survive attempts at falsification, and thinks, Wow, that's really cool! Why don't we just do that all the time?

A final note

All of the above is very simplified, of course. Like a model/metaphor, it's useful in some ways and not quite complete in others. And there's more to the debate, since Kuhn and Popper respond to each other's objections several times.

But if you understand what I wrote above, then I'd say you've understood the main, most important issues.

If the above discussion helped, would you please let me know, either in a comment after the post, in an email, or in class?


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Why Readers Are Better than Fans

I like to read. A lot. Three of my favorite authors to read are Neal Stephenson, Tim Powers, and George R.R. Martin. (All are science-fiction/fantasy authors -- I am a geek at heart, and perhaps in face and social grace, as well.)

But I wouldn't call myself a fan of those authors. I call myself a reader.

The distinction between the two is significant, I think, and it's a good one to keep in mind if one plans to have a career in writing, in oratory, in the arts, in sports, or in politics, where fans happen. For instance, President Obama has fans, and thanks in part to them, he's now in the White House. If he hasn't yet, he will someday appreciate the difference between fans and supporters, and if he is wise, he will wish more for the latter than for the former.

It is good always to remember that fan is short for fanatic, and that longer term might be a fairly accurate one.

One of the better recent depictions of a fan in pop culture is brought to us by Brad Bird, the writer-director of The Incredibles. In the film, the chief villain, Syndrome, starts out as Mr. Incredible's "biggest fan," a boy eager to play to side-kick. As boy and as man, Syndrome has high expectations for Mr. Incredible, and waxes bipolar in fits of praise and condemnation for the man: He thinks Mr. Incredible did a great job beating his machines, and likes that the hero hid under the bones of another superhero, but Syndrome is scathing when it appears Mr. Incredible called for help, a move Syndrome sees as "weak." Stalking away, he proclaims, "I've outgrown you."

Bird is tapping into real fan behavior here, as it's something with which folks in the film industry are well-acquainted: the fan has wild, unpredictable mood swings. Make him happy, and he'll lick the bottoms of your shoes. Disappoint him, and he'll take an electric drill to your kneecap. But don't count on a middle ground: There isn't much of one. One of the most telling characteristics of a fan -- one of the best ways to tell him apart from a reader, supporter, or viewer -- is that he rarely if ever says, "Eh. It was okay." Either the heavens parted for him, or it's hellfire time.

I started thinking about this while checking up on one of the authors I mentioned earlier: George R.R. Martin. I'm fond of his "Songs of Ice and Fire" series, which features long, carefully plotted books, and long gaps of time between installments -- each novel appears to take twice as long to write as the one before it.

The next novel in his series, A Dance with Dragons, has been in production for quite a while, and has encountered several delays. This has ticked off his fans, who, like Syndrome, are loudly proclaiming, repeatedly, sometimes several times a day, that they are done with him (for a small taste test, see here, and here, and here). They have said some rather horrible things about the man, prompting some rather defensive posts on his Web site and on his blog, and in response to those posts, they've decided to take offense. Meanwhile, his readers (who are not the same as his fans) are patiently checking for updates, and when they see that the book isn't done yet, they move onto other things.

(An aside: If you've read any of Martin's series, here's an explanation for why each novel is taking longer to write, and why we should expect that trend to continue for the rest of the series. Simply put, it's easy to churn out sequels when one is writing to formula. I do not say this as a put-down to formula writing. Star Wars, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter all follow a formula that Joseph Campbell calls the "monomyth" -- a single story structure that is pretty easy to follow and remember. The skeleton of the story was written for them in old myths, ages ago. I love all of those stories, despite their adherence to formula. But Martin isn't writing that kind of story. Most monomyth stories follow a hero from common or humble backgrounds, who is called to adventure, trained by an elderly wizard or mentor, treated to some sort of "magical" flight, given a gift that will help him in his quest, and thrust at least temporarily into death's domain, only to return and win. Usually, there's a prophecy or oracle involved. Once an author has mastered that story pattern, he can write it forever, and hardly anyone ever notices that Morpheus, Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Obi-Wan are all basically doing the same job. If Martin were writing monomyth, he'd certainly be done by now. But he's not. Martin has dozens of characters, none of which can properly be called a "main" character. All of them are plotting and engaging in intrigues. With each novel, he adds some new faces, and takes away others, usually in bloody and permanent ways. Each book has hundreds of pages of tricky, scheming details, none of which are easy to remember because none of them follow an easily memorized, familiar pattern. Martin doesn't like old patterns. He wants his work to read more like history, like something as complicated as the real world. As a result, each time he writes a novel, he makes his back story more complicated. So the next novel has to take all of that stuff into consideration, and stay consistent with it. With each novel, this will get more difficult to do. I do not know whether Mr. Martin, as talented as he is, will be able to finish what he has started. I can't think of many authors who could at this point. Okay, this parenthetical is over. Back to my original point ...)

George R.R. Martin is discovering the difference between fans and readers, and is probably realizing that, although fans can really boost his royalties, it's the readers who keep him sane, and who seem to appreciate how monumentally difficult his job is to do well. His note, which ticked off fans and ignited a flood of support email from readers, might have seemed rash; perhaps it was. But if it drives away bipolar fanatics while keeping readers friendly (as it seems to be doing), then in the long run it's probably a healthy thing. That said, author Patrick Rothfuss, who seems to be having similar fan difficulties, might be better at eliciting reader sympathy than Mr. Martin is: His opening comic strip, at the top of a post about fandom, is priceless. (Interestingly, it makes a reference to Martin, and Martin has mentioned Rothfuss's comic in return.)

This brings me back to Obama -- and to my main point. Yes, I do have one. Here it is: President Obama has arrived in the White House largely due to fans. Not supporters. Not political alliances with people who've decided to tolerate him. Fans. (Yes, supporters, etc. exist, too. But they aren't where his muscle comes from at the moment.) Many of his former fans already are angry with him, and I suspect it's going to get worse -- because they're fans. They won't brook political compromise. They will have a hundred unrealistic expectations, and he won't meet them, because he's ... well, human, I suspect. He won't meet their timetables for getting things done, particularly when it comes to first-time-voting fans who mistakenly believe he's been President since his election in November.

The media keep talking about the prospects for Obama being assassinated by a racist with a rifle, and I'm sure the Secret Service thinks about that possibility a lot. They're paid to do so. But if the Secret Service are truly on the ball, they're also going to start to get tougher with the crowds of Obama fans at public events. If Obama Girl shows up, they're going to frisk her carefully, and ought to.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sita Sings the Blues

In an earlier post about a short film titled "Fetch," I said I hadn't yet seen Nina Paley's other feature film, Sita Sings the Blues. Well, now I have, and I can see why critics say it is one of the best films of last year, even though it was never distributed in movie theaters. It's incredibly playful, and silly, and touching.

And now it's online. For free. (However, if you like it, you might consider sending Paley a donation. She spent years on this thing, and will only ever make money through voluntary donations.)

Here's a brief synopsis. Like Slumdog Millionaire, it's largely set in and about India. Like Slumdog, it's radically different in structure and style than what we're used to seeing. Like Slumdog, it's uplifting and fun, but sprinkled with depressing content -- both films basically take depressing content and help us get over it, and into a happy place.

Sita's tagline is "The greatest break-up story ever told," and it's an apt tag. The film has several stories, all dealing with breakups, and at least one of them is based on real events. The creator, Paley, was dumped by email by her long-term boyfriend. According to some articles surrounding the film, the dumping that happens to "Nina" in the animated film is pretty close to what actually happened to her. In response, she made a film that blends her own story with the Ramayana (a romantic Indian epic, also about a really terrible break-up), and with a bunch of old jazz numbers by Annette Hanshaw. It doesn't sound like it would combine well, but it does -- it's hypnotic.

Sometimes in the Spring, I teach English 1C, in which the goal is to do deep textual analysis of things like films, novels, plays, or poems. If I were teaching 1C this term (instead of 1SC, which I like better), I would probably be using Sita as a subject text -- a thing to study. It's such a rich weave of intertextual references, feminist re-readings of old stuff, critical commentary (by some narrators in the film, who do a kind of Mystery Science Theater routine), semiotics, and a zillion other things, that I think we could get a lot of mileage out of it. And it's fun.

However, since I'm not teaching 1C, I'll just post the link on the blog. If any of you watch it, let me know what you think.