My Great Awakening

for Alex Perry

I’d been sitting across the desk from him for what seemed an eternity.  He was hunched over my paper commenting on every one of the dozens of red notations he had written there.  We were still on the first page.  Jonathan Smith, “You describe Dwight L. Moody as ‘infamous’.  Do you have any idea what that word means (not waiting for me to answer)?  You should never every use that word to describe such a figure as Moody.”  Why didn’t I just get up and leave?  I had slid down in my seat to the point I was about to fall onto the floor … well this was perhaps more the description of my self-esteem than my physical body.

It had all started just a little over a week before.  I’d conferred with another professor in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago where I was a new student.  How I got there is another story, but needless to say, with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a graduate degree in business administration and only one religion course on my transcript, this was not a place where I felt at home.  I was a floundering homeless academic living under an overpass, a high speed highway travelled by my classmates who all had graduate degrees in religion or history or language.  This professor had asked me if I’d yet worked with Professor Smith.  Learning that I had not he directed me, seemed a command actually, to contact Professor Smith to arrange to work with him.

Dutiful and responsible if nothing else in this graduate program, I mustered my courage and made an appointment to meet with him.  When I walked into his office he seemed barely to notice me, but eventually asked my business.  I told him that I had been referred to him by another professor and I was there because of that.  “Hmmm,” he said looking at me quizzically, “so why would you be the sort of person I’d want to work with?”  Oh wooo!   I had no answer whatsoever for that question.  I can’t even remember what I did, but it surely was little more than to stand there with a dumb look on my face.  Finally, he said, “Well okay then.  Write me a paper and leave it next week.”  I muttered some sort of agreement and left.

I don’t know why I chose to write on Dwight L. Moody and late nineteenth early twentieth century revivalism, but that’s what I choose.  I’m guessing the paper was 12 to 15 pages long.  I dropped it off the next week and made an appointment to meet with Smith in a couple days to get his response.

That response was, as I have described, nothing short of a bludgeoning.  I felt humiliated and stupid and grilled and belittled and hammered and embarrassed … just to begin the list of my feelings.  However, I sat there and listened and took notes and tried to keep from crying.  Certainly in this fog of emotions I was experiencing there were some thoughts of what I might do with my life given this state of failure.  Yet, then a voice, Smith’s voice, that now seemed so very faint and far away somehow penetrated my awareness.  As he stood up extending me the paper he said, “Not a bad paper really.  Revise it and have it back here next week.”

As I found my way outside of his office I experienced the strangest sequence of changes and awakenings.  Did he just say, “Not a bad paper?”  Did he just ask me to revise it and get it back to him?  Surely this means that he hasn’t sent me away for good, drummed me out.  He wants a revision!  Oh my god, it wasn’t that bad!  As I walked along it suddenly dawned on me that I had just had my first real learning experience.  This man thought enough of my work to take it deadly serious down to my every choice of words.  It mattered to him what I wrote and mattered in the greatest detail.

It was a moment of awakening and transformation.  To have someone take my work seriously enough to give it the full measure of criticism in service to my learning, my education, was something I’d never experienced before in this way.  It was my first true learning experience and I knew that from that day forward I would take myself as seriously as had Smith.  He had somehow seen something in me I hadn’t seen in myself and that isn’t the way it should be.  Not only did this experience set the course of my education, it set the course of my career as an educator.

Posted in Education, Religion, Writing | 2 Comments

Cowrys on an African Bracelet

for Krista Keil

The surf was pounding.  It was difficult to make out the details of the lava rock formations ahead because of the wind-swirled sea spray.  Fishy wetness filled our nostrils and our lungs.  A beach near Busua, deserted now that Jenny and I had passed a group of squishy fat ruddy Australian miners with their gorgeous sexy Ghanaian mistresses.  Last night in Cape Coast we met a boy of perhaps 12 who told us of his busy day at school and his favorite American action and adventure movies, his favorite actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his interest in computers.  Busua was but 20 miles or so to the west and yet only the skinny wood poles lined the rutted road the wires carrying the world had not yet installed.  We were assisted in finding a place to stay by a 12-year old boy, dressed in a University of Colorado T-shirt, who sweetly asked us if small small boys like him got to drive cars in America.  He was endlessly fascinated to learn about telephones and computers and cars and anything American.  Only twenty miles, yet decades of distance.

Walking the beach I picked up a cowry shell.  I remember walking the shell-littered beach at Mission Beach Australia.  Emily and I spent many hours walking the beach.  At dusk the fruit bats flowed forth like a black river across the golden sky.  On that beach I took up, without resolution, the strange issue of what compels us to actually bend down and pick up a shell; one particular shell among thousands.  Finders keepers.  And then weeks later when we get home we have this little baggy filled with sticky sandy shells wondering what we are to do with them.  I’m not so sure I thought about that on the Busua beach, but I did think about the significance of the cowry shell.  Of course the cowry is available for free, for the taking, on the beaches of many tropical countries.  Yet, cowry shells have for millennia been used as money.  Something that in itself is free, worthless really, being used to represent wealth.  Guess we do the same thing with paper money.  It is, in itself, worthless or nearly so, yet we allow it to represent our wealth.  In God we trust.

Given the sameness, I think I prefer the cowry.  At least it is beautiful either on its own or as a decoration on an African bracelet.  It shines and it comes in different colors.  It was once the home of a creature.  On one side it appears as an eye looking at us, checking us out I suppose.  The other side is a dreamscape of imagery from teeth to vaginas to vagina dentate … now there’s a story for you.  The cowry: a thing of mystery, of creativity, of desire, of fear; … beach trash;  …  wealth.

12/12/2010

Posted in Uncategorized, Writing | 1 Comment

Spooked on Halloween

for Eduardo

The Pearl Street Mall was a sea of little ghouls and goblins each carrying a plastic pumpkin filled with colorfully wrapped sweet substances of bodily abuse, a manic high soon to plummet into screams and sobs.  That parents enable this is the mystery of Halloween.   The wild swings of my emotions, rafts of delight pummeled by waves of desperation, didn’t need sugar for fuel.  Just being there was enough.  Carlos was ardently directing Fatu, a punker winged insect of some cute variety, to the best candy hauls.  Jenny was trying to keep pace but kept running into kid-dragged women she hadn’t seen for years, torn between catching up and keeping up.  Somewhere in the middle, fifth wheel (not even fifth business), I watched the punker insect (the sweetness in my life) honing in for another drag on a sugar source.  My unbound love for her curiously embraced my unexplained desperate need to find in the crowd a mate, a peer.

Joy buffeted by waves of pain threatened to wash me out to sea; stalked was I by the “undertoad” that sucks on you drawn to the odor of emotions leaking uninvited from their cave.  Alone, isolated, unmoored in an ocean of kids and young parents.  Smiling and laughing while silently fighting to swallow the bile-tasting ache for lost life, for time past, for uncertain future.  Desperation joked with fear, flirted with pain, masked by a smile, as I reluctantly grasped my aloneness, a specter in the middle of this mob.

In the sea of cute monsters and darling robots herded by smooth-skinned dark-haired vibrant bouncy-stepping laughing young parents, scanning for a mate, a peer with a light in the lighthouse even, turned up only bent-shouldered wrinkly scaly-skinned sallow dim-eyed shuffling caricatures of aging humans.  Guess my mates were wearing costumes, too.

Sam Gill

October 31, 2010

Posted in Aging and Brain/Body Acuity | 4 Comments

Simpson’s latest

This clip deserves some extensive consideration.  Will look forward to finding time to do so.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Incipience of Dancing

Incipience refers to something that is about to begin, that is on the verge of becoming, that is nascent.  Incipience is that quality of expectation, excitement, anticipation, vitality that comes with the almost.  As a student of dance of all kinds in cultures the world over, I think that dancing can be characterized by its relentless incipience.  That is, throughout the dancing we never lose that edgy feeling of excitement expectation anticipation for what is on the verge of becoming and yet when the dancing ceases, we are left still with unsatisfied expectation and anticipation.  Dancing tends not to actually satisfy what it seems to promise and thus entices us to continue dancing and dancing.

This quality of dancing is certainly present on many levels in social dancing like salsa.  Incipience even characterizes the pre-dancing moments when we ask someone or are asked by someone to dance.  What is this dancer/dance going to be like?  What is about to happen?  Then the improvisational nature of the dancing assures that we do not know what is coming next, yet the continuing rhythm and musicality of the music compels the dancing to continue always about to turn into something, yet as soon as it does, or seems to, we cannot pause to savor or reflect on it because the movement of dancing draws us into the flowing incipience.  As we dance with others we are constantly touching, connecting, disconnecting and relating in so many ways each step or complex of bodily movements … all these chanting “this is about to happen; this is about to become something; this is connecting.”  Yet, dancing never allows us to savor or measure anything actually made or birthed.

Dances like salsa are magical and addictive and enticing and command our endless return to the dance floor because of their incipience—their endless promises that are, in some sense, never quite fulfilled.

Posted in Dance | 1 Comment

Thoughts on Considering New CU Religion Programs

Not since Gutenberg has a revolution in media impacted the world as greatly as e-media are today.  Although invented in the fifteenth century it took many decades for the impact of typography to be widely felt, yet it is clear looking back that the world changed in fundamental ways as a result of this change in media.  Today e-media are developing so rapidly that we experience a barrage of change approaching chaos.  Alvin Toffler’s publication of Future Shock just 40 years ago (a major book when I was in graduate school) described as “shock” the popular experience of rapid change, the future seemingly slamming into the present.  Yet, compared with today we surely think of the ‘70s as a rather lazy decade.  Here are some statistics that suggest something not only of the order of change in the present world, but also of the measure by which it is being accepted and incorporated in lifestyles the world over.  The number of songs available on iTunes in 2007 was 3.5 million; today there are 6 million plus 65,000 podcasts, 10,000 music videos, 20,000 audiobooks, and 500 movies.  In 2007 Wikipedia had 4 million entries; today there are over 16 million.  Facebook was not significant in 2007; today Facebook has half a billion (yes, 500 million) active users and includes 900 million objects.  YouTube had 6.1 million videos in 2007; today there are 120 million.  In a mere 3 years Wikipedia has grown 400%; YouTube 2000%; and Facebook at an incomprehensible rate.

Over a decade ago our religion colleague Mark Taylor wrote, “We are living in a moment of unprecedented complexity, when things are changing faster than our ability to comprehend them.”  And he brought this message directly to higher education:  “The same information and telematic technologies responsible for the shift from an industrial to a postindustrial economy are bringing higher education to a tipping point where unprecedented change becomes unavoidable.”  His analysis is interesting, yet almost amusing or endearing when one reflects that at the time of his writing, Taylor had never heard of Facebook, or iTunes, or Wikipedia (launched in 2001), or YouTube, or texting, or social networking.  Taylor also noted the enormous resistance he experienced among academics to even consider the impact of the inevitable; a position I’m guessing has not changed at all.

Not only are e-media creating unprecedented change, so also are global economic forces.  It is becoming increasingly clear and widely accepted that rather than a “V” shaped recession (a decline followed by a rise) or even a double bounce “W” shaped recession, the more likely letter to describe this economic situation is “L” in which the decline, once it reaches bottom, does not bounce back to previous levels, but rather remains flat for quite an extended period.  Housing, financial reform, health care, global warming, wars and conflict, the growing divide between wealthy and poor, and the hostile polarized political climate—all experienced widely in the world—seem to support the “L” shape in economic patterning.

As a result of these major influences on society and the world it is highly unlikely, perhaps even not all that desirable, for the university to simply return to what has been so familiar since Kant set forth the principles on which the modern university took shape and has pretty much persisted without major change for over 200 years.   Virtually all futurists indicate the high likelihood of major structural changes in a system that is prohibitively costly to operate and that has become almost totally dependent on funds from state and federal governments, business and industry, and charitable donors.  It is increasingly clear that this system cannot continue long to persist without fundamental change.

I think that the recent decline of newspapers offers a parallel that might be applicable to the inevitable revolution (though few are ready yet to acknowledge this) of the presently structured campus-based university.  Consider a few possibilities.  Let’s say that university faculty begin to package their courses as on-line courses and they begin to shift their work from a single campus base of operation to a world-wide audience.  Of course, on-line courses are already quite common and have been for at least 15 years.  It is thus only an incremental step before on-line delivery becomes the principal method rather than a supplement to classroom delivery.  For-profit universities are developing on the basis of e-delivery of much of education  Let’s say that state legislatures continue to be financially stressed as they have been now for some years.  It doesn’t seem that the end of state government financial stress is yet in sight and the structural changes being presently made are changing most universities in fundamental ways (ways that may well be beneficial).  Let’s say that family income available for higher education continues to be in short supply so that an increasing percentage of families shop for lower priced, yet still high quality, education for their children.  There is currently an explosion in enrollment at community colleges, evidence that this trend is well under way.  Let’s say that studies begin to show that for most students for many courses they take, their goals of education can be effectively met by on-line courses.  If faculty are not limited to a single institution, the very finest faculty in the country and world in any subject could produce the bulk of the on-line courses.  Who wouldn’t prefer to learn from the finest in the world, even if via e-media?  There is further advantage in that such courses are available to learners inexpensively and accessible at any time from any location.  Perhaps these studies will show that students may benefit from one semester residence for every two years of traditional campus based learning (face to face learning will long be valued), with the rest being done effectively at home or while working or performing community service or even traveling.  Should students spend but 25% to 50% of their educational time on campus, the economies of operating physical university plants could be greatly reduced.  Campus colonies (as Thomas Frey has suggested) will develop to use some of this unused space enabling a learning while working community led by faculty and non-university professionals directed towards a work/learn environment that actually creates products, performs services, and so forth incorporating learning as an essential dimension.  The strong interdependence of the sciences and business and defense already demonstrate the success of this model.  In this context, small liberal arts colleges might persist in which the best of faculty and students can research, learn, engage totally independent of immediate needs, retaining some small pockets of the classical understandings of higher education that have already given way as universities have become producers of workers.

It seems clear that the tipping point conditions for fundamental change have already been met, yet the surprising conservatism of university educators will fend off the inevitable impacts as long as possible, perhaps to disastrous results.  The point really is not to despair and read the situation pessimistically, but rather to see that in any situation of change there is great opportunity.

As the Religious Studies faculty begin discussions about the development of new programs it would seem that these factors may be relevant.  It would seem foolhardy to initiate any new program at this time without some careful investigations and considerations.  Minimally these would be:

  • What is the likely future of higher education and the impact this changing context will have on considered programs?
  • What is the future of the study of religion particularly in the context of the likely changes in higher education?
  • What are the motivations, goals, desires, contributions held by CU religion faculty for any proposed programs?

I am unaware that the CU religion faculty has made any effort to look at the future of higher education and its potential impact on the study of religion.  This is why I provided the few sketchy paragraphs at the beginning.  With Jonathan Smith we initiated a discussion of the future of the study of religion over the next 40 years.  I understand that Greg was pursuing the publication of Smith’s lecture.  To my knowledge no one on the religion faculty has otherwise engaged any further consideration of what Smith presented?  I have reshaped the writing course to consider these issues and both of my spring course offerings are directly developed in response to Smith’s lecture.  Of course, while Smith may be in many ways the most important person to chart the future of the study of religion, his resistance to any technological innovations makes him perhaps the least insightful in these areas.

As for CU faculty motivations to develop new programs, the one I have heard most persistently is that “the dean told us so.”  I’m guessing then that self-preservation is among the most basic and fundamental motivations for program expansion.  As the only department in the college without a PhD we seem vulnerable to elimination and we know that we have recently been short-listed in the administration’s budget cutting considerations.  The question is, would we be in any safer position as the newest, smallest, least credentialed PhD program on campus than we currently are without a PhD?  If self-preservation is a major motivator, are there not a number of other strategies that might better secure our future?  I think, for example, of creating a number of courses that focus on considering the central and essential role of religion in the world today.  I recall that Walter Capps drew 1,000 students to his course on Vietnam at UCSB.   It is clear that religion plays a decisive and central role in almost every area of conflict and concern in the world today.  To create a series of courses taught to large numbers of students would, I would think, almost certainly assure our future.  E-media are inevitable innovations in the future university.  The humanities are the last to appreciate the potential values of these areas.  However, it is totally possible.  Our program in the mid-1990s called TheStrip was many years ahead of the times in e-media terms and yet has not been followed by anything else.  One thing is quite clear and that is that religion is a sensuous-rich aspect of life.  Until now this aspect of religion has been relegated to coffee table books and films.  It is clear, even if we acknowledge several of Smith’s predictions, that incorporating experience, the senses, etc will almost certainly be persistent areas of expansion in the study of religion over the next 40 years; these pair well with e-media and the e-delivery of courses.  Aggressive innovations in this area would, I think, also assure the department’s security in the university as well as offer engaging creative challenges for faculty and students.  These actions would not only more strongly assure our future, they would also contribute to the developing future of the study of religion and the university.  For my taste and interest, I’d be most interested in seriously engaging in futurist studies of the university and the study of religion and taking bold actions as leaders and innovators in that future.

It is perhaps worth a moment to indicate some reservations I have about creating a more or less standard PhD program in religion at CU.  Foremost, I strongly believe that the era of faculty simply cloning themselves in the next generation is simply over.  Next, I’m concerned about the faculty credentials for the program and the impact of this situation on the program.  Should we not count (and last spring I was painfully made aware that at the moment we are largely bean counters where research is concerned) the book publications of Rodney, Ira, and me (which total somewhere in the area of 25 to 30 books), the number of books published by the balance of the faculty to my knowledge is rather small (I know of 2, but there may be more).  Can an active PhD faculty even begin to argue for high research stature and credibility when the book publication count is so low?  Would any of our current faculty choose to attend a program whose faculty had so few publications?  Next concern, students.  My sense is that a CU PhD program would draw large numbers of students.  Basically many of our current MA students that don’t get accepted to other PhD programs will want to continue at CU for a PhD.  Frankly it is easier to live on student loans than on unemployment especially when you haven’t been employed.  On the other hand, I think it would be rare indeed to attract to CU a top-notch student in any field.  How could CU religion PhD program possibly compete with long-established programs with highly accomplished faculty.  Thus, our faculty will be working with potentially quite a number of students, but, my question is, are these the students you want to be working with at this level?  Is this the best most creative use of your time and energies?  Finally, I have very serious ethical issues about producing PhDs from a fledgling program in an already over-crowded academic field knowing that their chances are small to none of getting an academic job of any kind.  Placement records are important and public.

In my view, it is not appealing to be identified with and to experience the struggles of perhaps the weakest PhD program in the college and perhaps the weakest PhD program in the international arena of the study of religion.  I should think there are far more interesting, creative, innovative, engaging, fun (and even secure) ways of doing our jobs.

Posted in Education, Future Studies, Religion | Leave a comment

Michel Serres and Coenaesthesia

I know that I’m not an intellectual in the true sense of the word.  I like to dance way too much and I read way too slowly.  This means that more often than I’d like, but then this is a lie, I discover someone whose works/writings are amazing and I am ashamed that I was theretofore unaware of it.  Michel Serres is one of these writer/persons.  The lie I mentioned above is that I actually live (in an academic sense anyway) for such discoveries.  I remember not so many years ago having a similar experience related to Jean Baudrillard.  Why is it always French philosophers?  I don’t even read French, although I did finally achieve the high pass in French reading that was required for my PhD at Chicago.

Okay, more to the point here.  I recently discovered the existence of Michel Serres book “The Five Senses” (1985, 2009) with the amazing subtitle “a philosophy of mingled bodies.”  Clearly a must-read given my interest in the senses and my regular teaching of courses on the senses.   It arrived yesterday and today I simultaneously devoured the intro and saag chicken at Kathmandu Restaurant in Nederland (talk about a wonderful discovery of a strangely out of place place) and now I am enthralled with the opening pages of the book itself.  I had to stop however when I read the following paragraphs.

Who was this ‘I’?

It is something everyone knows, unemotionally and as a matter of fact.  You only have to pass through a small opening, a blocked corridor, to swing over a handrail or on a balcony high enough to provoke vertigo, for the body to become alert.  [Serres is referring to a personal anecdote of being trapped in a porthole of a burning ship.] The body knows by itself how to say I.  It knows what extent I am on this side of the bar, and when I am outside.  It judges deviations from normal balance, immediately regulates them and knows just how far to go, or not go. Cœnesthesia says I by itself.  It knows that I am inside, it knows when I am freeing myself.  This internal sense proclaims, calls, announces, sometimes howls that I like a wounded animal.  This common sense apportions the body better than anything else in the whole world. (p. 19)

Coenaesthesia … common sense … amazing.

Sam Gill – August 27, 2010

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Writing is Gesture: Leroi-Gourhan

In his fascinating Gesture and Speech (1964, 1993) André Leroi-Gourhan traces the development of alphabetic writing considering it a distant consequence of the upright posture that allowed the hand to be free to draw the focus of communication from the face to the techniques of the hand.  The face and graphics are more strongly associated with mythology while the eventual development of alphabetic characters arranged in a linear stream precipitated the emergence of rational thought and philosophy.

There is much of interest in this way of understanding writing and its emergence because it centers the importance of alphabetic writing in the body, particularly the hand, and it identifies alphabetic writing as gesture or technique.  My reading of Leroi-Gourhan indicates something like a simultaneous development of writing gesture and the privilege of reason and thus philosophy suggesting, importantly, that body, that technique, that gesture, is linked at least as much with agency as with expression.  In the long history of human development we think as (not just what) we write and vice versa.  While I think Leroi-Gourhan understands that alphabetic writing and reasoned thought co-developed, my reading of him suggests that he understands writing in more of a utilitarian fashion, as a tool of memory, rather than as a tool of creative and explorative thought.  Clearly the evidence of what the earliest writing was about supports this understanding.  However, this leaves untold the story of when and how writing came to be a creative active powerful heuristic imaginative process, surpassing and complementing the functional characteristics of recording and documenting.

As I am in the process of critiquing academic writing conventions, these observations of Leroi-Gourhan are important.  It is clearly notable that a culture’s or community’s techniques of writing correlate with the way that community or culture thinks and engages the world.  Writing conventions that prohibit first person pronoun, that proceed along a reasoned and factually supported argument from thesis to conclusion, inculcate and reflect a reasoned and linear and factual mind and a world that is similarly ordered and related to.  These conventions correspond with a world that is orderly, firmly based on fact, and that can be understood and fully comprehended by the proper use of reason and objective observation and description.  These conventions correspond with a world where reason reigns and emotion, intuition, experience, subjectivity are excluded as distracting.  Yet, Leroi-Gourhan shows that alphabetic writing is inseparable from the bodily posture of walking upright, inseparable from the hand gaining some role in communication otherwise centered in the face.   Writing is, as Leroi-Gourhan shows us, gesture, a technique of culture and history.  The conventions of specific forms of writing amount to unconsciously used gestures that instill value without ever articulating the value.  The agency of the conventions is in the repetitious unquestioned practices of the body, the hand stringing alphabetic symbols across a blank page under specified constraints.

Leroi-Gourhan, writing in the 1960s discussed the impact of audiovisual innovations as suggesting a shift in gestural practices that he believed might well spell the end of writing.  He explicitly discussed film and audio recordings.  He focused largely on mechanical production and reproduction with hints of electronic media.  Little could he have imagined the developments that have occurred in the last half century.  What might Leroi-Gourhan have thought of the uncontrollable expansion of the Internet, the availability of 6 million songs on iTunes along with 10,000 music videos, 20,000 audio books, 65,000 podcasts, and 500 movies.  What would he have made of YouTube with its 120 million videos (up from only 6 million 3 years ago, only I say!), or Facebook with 500 million active members?  These too are founded in gestures that demand greater analysis than we have yet given them as techniques of culture, especially the bodily implications of these media forms.  Surely, these new media mark ever more strongly than did Leroi-Gourhan the end of writing or at least the necessity of its radical shift.  The interactive and relational character of the Internet engages gestures that defy the values insinuated by academic writing conventions that have changed little in a couple thousand years.  And the extensive research that convincingly grounds mind, value, and meaning in gesture, body, sensorimotor patterns, and bodily movement offer equally powerful challenges to these same conventions.

The future of writing surely lies in that aspect of writing that is a technique of creativity and imagination and exploration.  Until now we have relegated this technique to the sideline where we place art and entertainment; the challenge is how to embrace this technique while retaining some semblance of what we understand as academic.

Sam Gill – August 26, 2010

Posted in Education, Future Studies, Writing | 1 Comment

Education is Not Information

The future of education must carefully and critically question the current broadly held understanding that education is information.  Late in the twentieth century research began to demonstrate conclusively that meaning and value are based in and founded on bodily experience.  The western Cartesian perspective separates mind and body (and experience, subjectivity, and emotion).  In many ways information is disembodying and body-denying.  Even though we may know lots of facts and bits about something, this information does not a rich experience make.  Information is information about and about signals object and distance.  Even while advertisers and information providers identify very closely our personal individual information interests (most usually without our even knowing it is being done)—suggesting a subjective and experiential development—the information still stands apart from experience, from body.

This trajectory towards education as information  marks, in my view, the greatest threat to education and thus to human value and the quality of human life.  The difficulty in an electronic information age is how to link learning with experience, particularly bodily experience.  While there are endless possibilities, a couple are worth a mention.  The colony model suggested by Thomas Frey puts students, faculty, and professionals together as workers, developers, producers, investigators, creators, contributing to society as they experience learning while actively pursuing practical goals:  a film, a product, a service, new knowledge.  Another possibility is the by-product of the scale of efficiency of e-learning.  If most of the traditional time in classrooms and on campuses were spent e-learning, the time needed to learning would potentially be less than that required for the more traditional learning methods.  Time would be saved since the learning would be individually paced; once a student has learned a bit of knowledge she may move on.  Time would be saved in the efficiency of having the active learning tools available to students at any time and place, rather than being restrained to scheduled classrooms and class times.  Thus, with less hours spent learning the same materials, with facilities freed from the exclusive inefficient use of classes, this time and these spaces could be devoted to a wide range of bodily-based activities:  intramural sports, yoga, dancing, fitness, and so forth.  I’ll need to write before long on the types of brain/body activities that create the greatest potential for brain/body acuity.  These need to be present in any learning environment.

A further option would be a transformation in the practice of writing.  Currently university writing practices are consistent with the out-dated objectivist linear understanding of learning.  Current university writing conventions generally abhor any significant presence of the author, of subjectivity, of experience, of emotion.  Given that it has become well established that experience, emotion, movement, sensorimotor patterning, gesture, etc are fundamental to all meaning, future university writing conventions need to change.  The challenge will be to create conventions and expectations in which academics—faculty and students—are writing the body, writing the moving body, writing experience, etc while continuing to be academic in the sense of creating and establishing generally applicable knowledge, principles, ideas, concepts, etc rather than simply personal trivia or even art.  To rise to this challenge is an exciting prospect.

Sam Gill, August 26, 2010

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How to Save the University: Lessons from the Possible Saving of the News

We are all well aware of the decline of the newspaper industry. A number of factors have contributed to this decline:  shift to on-line news sources, decline of newspaper advertisers who find other media are more cost effective, a shift to news packaged and presented as politics and entertainment, and the inefficiencies of news agencies based on a daily or regular paper medium whose news is necessarily no longer news before it is physically available.  It is generally understood that Google and net-based services have contributed to the decline of newspapers.  However, as discovered and reported by James Fallows in his The Atlantic article “Inside Google: The Company’s Daring Plan to Save the News (and Itself)” (June 2010), Google has initiated a range of actions in the direction of saving the news if not the paper forms with which it has so long been identified.

I think that the recent decline of newspapers offers a lesson that might be applicable to the inevitable decline (though few are ready yet to acknowledge this) of university (and other levels) campus based education.  Consider a few possibilities.  Let’s say that university faculty begin to package their courses as on-line courses and they begin to shift their work from a single campus base of operation to a world-wide audience.  Of course, on-line courses are already quite common and have been for some years.  It is thus only an incremental step before on-line delivery becomes the principal method rather than a supplement to classroom delivery.  Let’s say that state legislatures continue to be financially stressed as they have been now for some years.  It doesn’t seem that the end of state government financial stress is yet in sight and the structural changes being presently made are changing most universities in fundamental ways (ways that may well be beneficial).  Let’s say that family income available for higher education continues to be in short supply so that an increasing percentage of families shop for lower priced, yet still high quality, education.  There is currently an explosion in enrollment in community colleges, evidence that this trend is well under way.  Let’s say that studies begin to show that for most students for many courses they take, the goals of education can be effectively met by on-line courses.  If faculty are not limited to a single institution, the very finest faculty in the country or world in any subject could offer the bulk of the on-line courses.  There is further advantage in that such courses are available to learners inexpensively and accessible at any time from any location.  Perhaps these studies will show that students may benefit from one semester residence for every two years of traditional campus based learning, with the rest being done effectively at home or while working or performing community service or even traveling.  Should students spend but 25% to 50% of their educational time on campus, the economies of operating physical university plants could be greatly reduced.  Campus colonies (as Thomas Frey has suggested) might develop to use some of this unused space enabling a learning while working community led by faculty and non-university professionals directed towards a work/learn environment that actually creates products, performs services, and so forth incorporating learning as an essential dimension.

No one of these potentials is unlikely and most are not only likely but would result in high quality education for far less cost to both states and other education deliverers and the families paying for education.

Whereas the newspaper industry suffered decline and devastation, with the help of Google and others, it may find a way to transition into a better, stronger, news industry.  Hopefully, universities and higher educators will initiate the creative transition to new models and practices.  This can happen only if educators actually think to the future and take action.  I see little evidence that either is a present concern.

In this proposed model it would be possible that some few students will still find valuable a full four-year campus experience.  These would be the students who would pursue the more classic liberal arts understanding of education, that is, education understood as cultivating a fully minded-bodied person rather than education as information or information processing.

In this model the economy of scale would afford faculty greater independence, autonomy, opportunity, and support for research in the more traditional sense of inquiry motivated primarily by curiosity and experimentation, rather than research motivated largely by industrial and defense demands.  This is the kind of research that can produce entirely unexpected results.

Sam Gill – August 26, 2010

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