Category Archives: Books

The Dark is Rising

Complete Lunar Eclipse (NASA)

Complete Lunar Eclipse (NASA)

It may seem curious to entitle a blog, “The Dark is Rising,” just a day after the Winter Solstice, when I experienced a phenomenal lunar eclipse. Nevertheless, remembrances of the children’s book, bearing the same name, and written by Susan Cooper, keeps seeping into my conscious mind. It is a book that I read to my son Stephen, one Christmas long ago, when he was confined to my mother’s living room couch, while recovering from a nasty bout with pneumonia. My mother cooked and did her art work, while I read; no matter, we were both engrossed, almost as much as Steve. Given recent events, I realize that the story line of the second book in Cooper’s five part series–appropriately entitled The Dark is Rising–is very timely; there are, in fact, a number of eerie parallels.

the never ending battle between the forces of good and evil

Writing in the tradition of J. R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, Cooper employs mythical symbols and tropes to depict the never ending battle between the forces of good and evil. Time shifts and magic play important roles as well. In the story, the protagonist, young Will Stanton, discovers on the morning of his eleventh birthday, which occurs evocatively on Midwinter’s Eve, that he is the last of the Old Ones–people who, having been granted supernatural powers, have used them across the centuries, to push back the dark.

Will’s entry into this realm is full of foreboding. He is destined to be a seeker. To do his part, Will must collect six sacred, ornamental signs, which, when joined, will defy the Dark. A looming atmosphere accompanies Will throughout his journey: for the forces of the Dark make themselves ever present in the guise of a tremendous chill and snow storm that paralyzes the town; birds attacking from the sky; a wandering madman called the Walker, lurking behind every corner, and the Rider, who, appearing dressed in black and riding a large black stallion, personifies evil. Fortunately, Will is rescued from these encounters by a host of Old Ones–some from many centuries ago–who share his mission on behalf of the Light.

First New York snow of 2011: Nolita from Dan Nguyen NY

First New York snow of 2011: Nolita from Dan Nguyen NY

Now, let’s consider this Christmas season. As in the time of Will’s brush with the Dark, these past few weeks have yielded some unusually tempestuous weather, with torrential rains in California and Australia, causing life-threatening mudslides and floods, not to mention snowy blizzards carpeting most of the East Coast. We must take notice, too, of the birds falling from the sky, and the dead fish washed ashore? More troubling still is the political climate of hatred exacerbated by media pundits and right wing politicians, such as Sarah Palin, who seek private gain at the expense of humanity. As we have seen in Arizona, the consequences can be catastrophic. What accounts for all of this? If you look at the Homeland Security report Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, you can only conclude that THE DARK IS RISING.

Today, there are no Old Ones, as in the myths bygone. But some of us are “old” in the sense that we have lived through more civic–even if stress ridden–times, times when people reached out with a hand, and not with a gun. Like the Old Ones of the past, perhaps we need to work together to hold back the Dark, reconstructing a narrative based on trust and caring. As the neurobiologist Dr. Douglas Fields has demonstrated in his research, our brains are the product of our environments. Hence, those of us who grew up in better times can play our parts by reconstructing and retelling the magic inherent in our memories.

Getting Back to Speed~~The Road to Recovery

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary 058 from Michael Dawes

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary 058 from Michael Dawes

It’s commonplace to note the ups and downs in life. As they say in Spanish: la palma sube, y el coco baja. And yet, when we find ourselves at our own nadir, or in the midst of a deep recession, we often despair. The way back up seems so steep, and the recovery so slow. Worse yet, to garner hope, and seek a way out, we need someone, or something, to blame.

As I read the news each morning, searching for the slightest positive signs, I too am discouraged, but not so much by the slow pace of economic growth, or even by the slanderous attacks made against President Obama. Far more disheartening to me are the pontificating pundits,’ who, once having heralded Obama’s ascendence, are now unrelenting in their criticisms of him for failing to get it right.

Economic indicator from jakekrohn

Economic indicator from jakekrohn

One need only consider Elenor Clift’s recent piece in Newsweek, “The Problem With the Cult of Obama: Halfhearted Soul-Searching at the White House,” in which she calls upon the President to reinvent himself in accordance with voters’ aspirations. As the Jungian analyst Lawrence Staples, author of the book, Guilt With A Twist: The Promethean Way, might point out in response, winning praise–or an election, for that matter–is not the best measure of success. After all, Prometheus outraged the Gods when he stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals, but, in so doing, he greatly enriched humankind.
promethea.org

promethea.org

In like fashion, the Democrats poor election results might not reflect Obama’s inability to track the pulse of the American people, but rather his willingness to nonetheless take a risk, and diverge from the game of politics, in order to achieve what he believes to be overriding societal goals. (See, for such an argument, Ari Emanuel, “Forget the Carter Comparison: Obama is Following in the Footsteps of Harry Truman–and That’s a Very Good Thing.)

Turning the pundits’ criticism back upon themselves, one might ask: What have you done lately to stimulate recovery? To be sure, negativism is not the answer. Think about recovery from disease. Do you blame the sick person; do you lash out against God? These are self-defeating strategies. I know from personal experience, having been caregiver to my husband, Brock Evans, as he successfully battled stage 3a multiple myeloma. Most unhelpful were the doctors who slinked along his bedside, rolling their eyes behind his back, and cautioning him that “people in his condition don’t do very well.” On the other hand, what made all the difference in the world–that is to say, in addition to his own courage and fighting spirit– were the mailbags from well wishers reaffirming their love and cheering him on. One turning point came when he received a song, written for him by Carol King, appealing to him to “Hold On, Hold On.” It went like this:

You ask yourself the question
What am I going to do
How can I go on when life has let me down
You know it won’t be easy
But time will take you through
You can find your courage in the love inside of you

Hold on, Hold on . . .

So, as in the words of Hal David, it would seem that “What The World Needs Now, is Love Sweet Love, “ or, at the very least, some very enthusiastic cheerleaders.

Gone Fishing

Tom Sawyer (courtesy of kidsblogs.nationalgeographic.com)

Tom Sawyer (courtesy of kidsblogs.nationalgeographic.com)

My blog has been so dormant over the summer, one might wonder where I have been. To borrow a term from Tom Sawyer, I would simply say that, this summer, “I went fishing.”

The place was our family’s summer cottage on Hawthorne Lake, a community in the New Jersey Highlands established by my great grandfather, H.P Dillistin, together with his friends and relatives. Dating back, in fact, to Mark Twain’s days, it shares much in common with St. Petersburg, Mississippi, the town along the river where Tom Sawyer had his adventures.

Grandaddy Dillistin

Grandaddy Dillistin

Like the people in St. Petersburg, Mississippi, we have lived together in close proximity for over five generations, experiencing good and bad times, intermarrying, sharing common lore, befriending and sometimes feuding with one another, as in one big, extended family.

My own recollections of Hawthorne Lake are very vivid, dating back to the Second World War, when we spent the summers together with the wives and children of my parents’ male friends who were off at the front. So sparsely populated was the Lake at the time, we shared the waterfront with deer, beavers, muskrats and otters. And we children were much like Tom Sawyer and his friends, preoccupied with the adventures of exploring, frog hunting, cooking mud pies, turtle trapping, and looking for hidden treasures, totally oblivious to the raging events around us.

As in Tom’s case, one special past time was fishing; for the lake is home to many good fish–bass, pickerel, perch, and the sunnies that nip at you as you dip your toes in the water. As a young girl, I often accompanied my father fishing, rowing the boat as he wound reel and cast his line. It was a way of sharing with him, drawing him out, and perhaps getting hints about what was really going on in the world beyond the Lake. But my father was reserved with his children, and said little, as he waited for the fish to bite. I sat there patiently, watching the ripples wrap around the oars of the boat. But–not liking to eat fish, much less to skin them–I secretly hoped the fish would not take the bait.

No wonder I have come to believe that fishing is not so much about catching fish, as it is about capturing our thoughts and our daydreams as they float on by. So this summer, even though I was not sitting on the river banks, as Tom was inclined to do, I was fishing for ideas as I sat with my husband, in our wicker chairs, on our screened in porch, observing the world around me. Energized by LIFE, I am–as we used to say–now ready to roll.

Up, Up, And Away!

up-up-and-away-susan-roberts

up-up-and-away-susan-roberts

Up, Up and Away in my beautiful machine. Remember that song from Sesame Street? Driving to the lake in our new Ford Focus, I felt like I was flying high. Off we were to our summer cottage in the New Jersey Highlands, with two cars in tandem, both stuffed to the brim with our treasured possessions–our books, are tapes, our CDs, our cloths, and of course our dog Sparky.

A new car you say? You are environmentalists, non-materialists! How did that come about?

Well, we had been thinking about it for a long time. Although our 20 year old CRX si (the last of its make) had served us well, it had seen better times. As well, we were beginning to creak, just like the CRX, so it was harder and harder to take advantage of its sporty appurtenances. Nonetheless, we procrastinated, not wanting to let go of the happy memories and associations that our CRX evoked. As importantly, negotiating a car deal is intimidating; much as in the case of birthing a baby, we had to wait until the pain of the previous experience had subsided before trying again.

We had to wait until the pain of the previous experience subsided, before trying again

What helped to overcome our inertia was our desire to bring all our stuff with us on our vacation to Hawthorne Lake. No doubt, it would take two cars. Did we really need all this paraphernalia? Most likely not! But, as one might well imagine, even though we could not possibly read all the books, wear all the cloths, nor listen to all the CDs that we had packed, together they comprised a web of connections and affordances, which made it easier for us to carry out our routine away from home.

so many choices

so many choices

The subject of things continued to preoccupy me even after we had unpacked our cars, put everything in its place, and settled into our cottage on the lake. For once I was ensconsed in the old wicker chair at the end of our long screened-in porch, the first book I drew from my grand pile was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self.

Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s perspective on the role of things is quite unique. Unlike most sociologists, they are not focused on the relationship between things and status. Nor do they take an especially critical perspective of things, bemoaning the evils of consumerism. As significant, the authors rise above the technology determinism vs. social constructivism debate. Instead, grounded in the symbolic interactionism of George Herbert Mead, and the philosophical pragmatism of John Dewey, they view the interactions/transactions between people and and things as a two-way street.

Generations of Things

Generations of Things

Embodying past associations and psychic investments, objects convey symbolic meaning to those engaged with them. At the same time, the users of objects can extend that meaning by investing their own psychic energy in the object to pursue their own individual goals. Growth occurs in the process, with respect to both the object and the individual. As importantly, because objects embody meaning at three levels–the self, the community, and the cosmos–the network of objects with which we are surrounded help us to orient ourselves to function both as individuals as well as participants in a larger whole.

Our home at the lake epitomizes the narrative that Csikszentmihayli and Rochberg-Halton lay out. As they point out:

One of the most important psychological purposes of the home is that those objects that have shaped one’s personality and which are needed to express concretely those aspects of the self that one values are kept within it. Thus the home is not only a material shelter but also a shelter for those things that make life meaningful.

Crossepatch

Crossepatch

Built by my grandfather in 1908, our house at the lake is home to prized possessions that span five generations–the deer head over the fireplace, first edition books, the mission oak furniture, blackened cast iron pots, my mother’s rolling pin, my father’s fly rod, my childhood toys, my son’s tools, my grandchildren’s paintings, and–last but not least–our new car. They serve not only to link me back through the generations that preceded me; they instill in me the insight and impetus to keep our house and its environs in tack for the generations yet to come.

Right, Left, Right

Left....Right....Right Bird March (Ananth's)

Left....Right....Right Bird March (Ananth's)

Several weeks ago, I read an article reporting that Dick Cheney feared the rise of the Tea Party. The reason? Focusing on Rand Paul’s politics, the news story claimed that Paul was too conservative for Cheney. I tried the idea out for size. But deep inside, I suspected otherwise. Was it possible, instead, that Rand Paul might be too radical for conservative republicans, as we now know them?

Might not the Teaparty be too radical for conservative republicans?

At first, It was only an impression, inspired by books I had read years ago. Intrigued, I decided to revisit them. First up was Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, an elaborate story featuring classic Dickens characters that builds upon and derives its intrigue from people and events that traverse the shadowy backdrop of the French and English revolutions. Recalling a germane passage in the novel, I now sought it out.

Like most other Dickens novels, The Tale of Two Cities is a cliffhanger. So I read it transfixed until three in the morning, when I finally came across the key scene that I was looking for. You may recall it.

Madame_DeFarge_I_by_Goldenspring

Madame_DeFarge_I_by_Goldenspring

In this scene, the character Sydney Carton, who although he is about to take the hero, Darnay’s, place at the guillotine, is inspired by a vision of a peaceful Paris, a heaven on earth, in which many of the bloodthirsty revolutionaries–including the irrepressibly vengeful Madame Defarge–will share in his same fate. I wonder, is this what Dick Cheney had in mind?

 Day 152/365: Searching for Clues(from weboricam(

Day 152/365: Searching for Clues (from weboricam)

In search of more clues, I turned to historian Crane Briton‘s classic analysis, The Anatomy of a Revolution, a book I had first read while in graduate school at Columbia. Employing as his lens, the course a fever runs, Brinton compares the French, English, Russian, and American revolutions in terms of the following stages: precursor situations and events; the rise and rule of the moderates; the accession of the extremists; the reign of terror, and the thermidor reaction. It is uncanny how many parallels Brinton was able to draw, but even more so when we compare these parallels to our own situation today.
Pillar10-History-French-Revolution-Delacroix

Pillar10-History-French-Revolution-Delacroix

Consider, for example, the rumblings leading up to all of these revolutions. As Brinton notes, there was growing resistance to excessive taxation; increased outrage about injustices and inequality; a loss not only of government legitimacy but also of the rationale for government itself. While catalytic events may have set the revolutionaries into motion, the driving force that sustained them was a radical utopian vision–much like that held by Sydney Carton–of what a post revolutionary future might be like. Does it sound familiar?

To hear echos of these phrases today, one need only listen to the metaphysical tone that underlies much of the Tea Party rhetoric. As journalist J.M. Bernstein describes:

The seething anger that seems to be an indigenous aspect of the Tea Party movement arises, I think, at the very place where politics and metaphysics meet, where metaphysical sentiment becomes political belief. More than their political ideas, it is the anger of Tea Party members that is already reshaping our political landscape.

Look Homeward America

Look Homeward America

If you need further convincing, take a look at Bill Kauffman‘s Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals, a sympathetic, and somewhat nostalgic, perspective, which not only puts the Tea Party’s philosophy in perspective but also aligns it with some of the idealistic anarchism of the past.

Granted, Former Vice President Dick Cheney is not known for his academic erudition. But let’s take a leap of faith, and assume that he has read Dickens and Brinton in the past. Might he have good reason to be afraid of the Tea Party. I would think so. As the 17th/18th century revolutions show us, entrenched, traditional authorities have always sought to remain in power by reaching out to the moderates; the moderates have overtaken the traditional conservatives by reaching out to the radicals; whereas the radicals have toppled governments with the help of the mob. If the Republicans build their future political campaigns on the foundation of the new reactionary radicals, are the Tea Party gang likely to do otherwise?

The World Turned Upside Down

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

My mother was a fine artist, always painting, sculpting, or making woodcuts. Although she maintained a studio-like setup in our basement, she and her work always seemed to make their way upstairs, giving rise to a world of clutter.

Worse still, as a youngster, I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable: knock on our door and you would fine a handsome women, wearing her red plaid flannel work shirt atop a pair of well-worn jeans, a pencil behind her ear, and the remains of paint and printers ink lodged under her nails. If that wasn’t enough! Just consider what was, perhaps, my most embarrassing moment, when I brought a school friend home for lunch, only to find my mother “cooking” her etchings on the kitchen stove.

I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable. 

Given my mother’s interest in art, one can understand why, as children, we spent a lot of time in museums, as well as browsing through the numerous art books that my mother collected. Whereas most parents spend a lot of time reading to their children, my mother spent much of our quality time sharing her thoughts about paintings and art.


The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

One of these paintings is still vivid in my mind–The World Turned Upside Down, painted by the Dutch Master Jan Steen sometime around 1669. Relating it to my own family life, and envisioning my world falling apart, I was horrified by it, so much so that the painting is still engraved in my memory. Of course, I now know that I needn’t have worried. As with most of Steen’s works, this painting not only characterized daily life in Holland; as importantly, it employed humor and allusions to proverbs, symbols, and myths so as to depict a moral parable. In fact, this particular painting became a trope in Dutch life, as burgers came to describe a lively, untidy home–such as the one I had been raised in–as a “Jan Steen Household.”  Still very young at the time, I was too innocent to appreciate the duality in Steen’s painting: I saw the chaos, but I failed to see the spirited activities that gave rise to it.

The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Revived during times of trial, this schematic of the world teetering on the edge of chaos has endured for centuries. Not surprisingly, it accompanied the revolutionary era, appearing first in England and then in the United States. (See Chris Hill, The World Turned Upside Down; radial ideas during the english revolution, Penguin Books 1991.) In 1643, for example, a broadside first published the English ballad The World Turned Upside Down, whereafter it was sung as a protest against Parliamentary policies, which sought to outlaw traditional Christmas Celebrations. Rumor has it, moreover, that American troops also played this tune during the American Revolution, when General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781.
The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Most recently, the author/journalist Melanie Phillips has borrowed on this theme, attributing todays absurdities–such as climate change, the war in Iraq, fraud, bank failures, etc.–to a world run amok. According to her, science has been overturned by ideology.
Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Having become far more cosmopolitan over the years, I can now see the world in complex terms. What to earlier generations was considered a world upside down, now looks to me like a phase transition. Fortunately, for me, growing up in a bohemian household has helped me to deal with ambiguity, such as is depicted in the paintings and tropes I have mentioned. Better still–although there is no paint or printers ink under my nails–the way of life I learned from my mother has prepared me to follow in her footsteps, and enjoy complexity to the fullest.

Love Springs Forth in Springfield

Springfield, Colorado

Springfield, Colorado

I had never heard of Springfield, Colorado before. Springfield, Illinois: Yes. Springfield, Missouri: Yes. But Springfield, Colorado: Never. Have you? The sad fact is that we should all know about Springfield, Colorado. For Springfield is in the heart of the Dust Bowl. A terrifying, but also encouraging, lesson can be learned here–especially today–as we seek to deal with the recent oil spill off our Gulf Coast.

My introduction to Springfield Colorado proved to be a delightful affair–the wedding of my son Noah Evans to Sarah Moffett, a lovely young woman, who had grown up there.

Tea kettles were boiling; cultural wars raging; and this was Republican territory 

Although my husband Brock and I had already spent some time with Sarah’s parents–Joel and Sheila–as well as many other family members, we left Washington on the weekend of the wedding not knowing what to expect. After all, tea kettles were boiling; cultural wars were raging; and this was Republican territory. Along we came, east coast Democrats, and environmentalists to boot.

We were not the only ones who were somewhat tenuous about our final destination. Driving five hours from Denver, my husband stopped to ask a policeman for directions to Springfield. How were we to interpret his answer? The policeman had never heard of Springfield before! En route to the wedding from New Jersey, my son Stephen got similar vibes when the car rental representative at the airport advised him that there were far better places to visit in Colorado than Springfield.

And to be sure, from the perspective of a New Jersey girl, Springfield appeared somewhat stark, to say the least. Much of it seemed to live in the past. With many storefronts boarded up, there was not much to see. So, even arriving late at night, along a barren truck route that suddenly turned into Main Street, we found our destination–The Starlight Motel–straight away.

Haley, Ben & Sophie at Picture Canyon (courtesy Steve Garcia)

Haley, Ben & Sophie at Picture Canyon (courtesy Steve Garcia)

 A morning hike to, and exploration of, Picture Canyon provided a glimpse of the panoramic grasslands that make up part of the United States’ Eastern Plains. Accompanied by lots of wind and tumble weed, we climbed the rocks and eyed the delicate wildflowers pushing through the dry ground.

In Springfield, the ebullience and generosity of the Moffett clan pervaded the atmosphere, as we all gathered together in the backyard to witness the wedding of Sarah and Noah. A wonderful reception followed. Everyone–family, friends, young and old–pitched in. How else, one might ask, would it be possible to transform a large farm structure, on the family’s ranch property, into an elegant wedding ballroom, with delicious home-made food for all, where East met West, Red met Blue, and some–I am told–danced till three.

The Wedding of Sarah & Noah

The Wedding of Sarah & Noah

Back home, recovering from bronchitis (altitude + grasslands!), I sought to find out more about Springfield, Colorado, and its history as part of the Dust Bowl. Everyone recommended that I read The Worst Hard Times by Timothy Eagan. I am so glad I did! However, the book, which described how the people of the Plains not only helped to cause the great Dust Bowl, but also managed to survive it, haunts me still.  Now I understand, at a far greater depth, the long, lonely horizon that I saw on encountering Springfield. But I take hope knowing that the young people I met at the wedding are starting out with hopes anew, even as Sarah’s father, Joel, is working for the National Resources Conservation Service (established by President Roosevelt to deal with the crisis of the Thirties) to help restore and preserve the landscape’s future.  Perhaps there is hope for the Gulf as well.

Going Out Of My Head

juke box love from miss kristin g

juke box love from miss kristin g

As a child of the Sixties, I have been imbued with the music of the time. Somewhere in my brain there is a virtual juke box, where songs and memories are inextricably intertwined. Without forewarning, an event or thought will flip a switch; then, traveling through the synapses in my brain, a tune will come to mind; and–much like Doris Day in a 1950s musical–I will break out into song. It is, so to speak, a very emergent phenomenon. Of late, for example, it is the tune Going Out of My Head by Little Anthony and the Imperials that keeps running through my mind.

 Rock Hudson and Doris Day PILLOW...from Christine Montone

Rock Hudson and Doris Day PILLOW...from Christine Montone

This notion of the virtual juke box came to mind, I think, because I have been exploring how the brain works in my class Networks and the Creative Process. Most stimulating in triggering my thoughts about how the brain, memories, and every day experiences are linked together has been Joseph Le Doux’s book Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are –a book I highly recommend. In this book, Le Doux raises the question of how we evolve to become the persons we are.

how do we evolve to become the persons we are

Le Doux’s narrative relates to the eternal debates–dating back at least to the time of Plato and Aristotle–about the mind-body problem. Le Doux transcends this dichotomy, arguing that the body (brain) and mind (soul, consciousness, self) are one. The brain, according to Le Doux is constituted of a complex network of neurons that house genetic information and memory. While these neurons store information, they are continually upgraded via axions and dendrites that reach out from other parts of the network, transmitting information via neurotransmitters, such as seritonin and dopamine. As Le Doux explains, all individuals have a brain structure that replicates this pattern, but it is an individual’s specific architecture–the product of genetic makeup and experience–that makes him or her unique. As he says: we are our synapses.

 synapse from Lush Photo

synapse from Lush Photo

So, reading Le Doux, it is now clear to me that my virtual juke box is just one customized circuit among the millions of circuits that make up my brain. Moreover, I can see how this circuit has evolved and accompanied me throughout my life, housing all the songs that have buffered me through my first heart-breaks, the anti-war movement, and all those difficulties associated with the rebellious Sixties. But why now, I ask, should the song Going out of My Head–a song I haven’t thought about in years–suddenly raise its head.

A few weeks ago I heard a colleague speak to a group of students. Talking about his own intellectual journey, he described in a most poignant way his decision to pursue what he characterized as a Life of the Mind. Shades of Plato. Having just read Le Doux, I had to question his words. If the mind is the sum total of all our synapses, isn’t Living the Life of the Mind what we all seek to do? As for me, were I to be constrained to work with only one part of my brain, I think I would go out of my head.

Can Universities Be Small Worlds?

 It's A Small World WD-2 from TTucker 8.0 2010

It's A Small World WD-2 from TTucker 8.0 2010

Students in my Networks and the Creative Process class have been thinking about what constitutes the most appropriate network architecture for fostering creativity. Following the work of Grannovetter, Strogatz, Watts, and Burt, as well as others, who advocate a small world network, we have been comparing various contextual architectures to each other as well as to that of a small world.

students compared the architecture of a city to that of the brain.

For example, in our last blogging assignment, students compared the architecture of a city to that of the brain, commenting in each case on how the architecture influences creativity. An interesting exercise, to be sure!

Perhaps I should say a word about small worlds, and why their architectures are assumed to facilitate creativity or–as Ron Burt would say–good ideas. Small world networks are characterized by dense clusters (comprised of close associations, or strong ties) that are linked to other clusters within a network by weak ties (or loosely coupled relationships). According to the theory, dense relationships within the clusters give rise to trust and collaboration, which enable collective action, thereby allowing members to more easily execute tasks.

old hat (from  Fabrizio Savoca)

old hat (from Fabrizio Savoca)

However, ideas within a cluster tend to become old hat–that is, because members are so closely associated, they tend to reinforce old ways of thinking and discourage new ideas. To garner new ideas and be creative requires outreach, based on weak ties, and the brokering of ideas across clusters.

At first glance, universities appear to be small worlds.

How does this idea apply to university settings? At first glance, one might assume that universities are ideal small worlds. Indeed, divided up into departments that are grounded in disciplinary practices and domains, the university is constituted of relatively independent departmental clusters, which are linked only indirectly through structurally equivalent ties to the university administration–an organizational paradigm that dates back to the post civil-war research university (Clark Kerr).

Medieval University (courtesy of Wikipedia

Medieval University (courtesy of Wikipedia


Although universities have long clung to their autonomy and independence from outside influences, of late, growing economic pressures have led them to reach out to their larger socioeconomic environment for financial support through grants, alliances, joint ventures, and patent pools. These outreach efforts have not only been favored by Government but also supported through legislation, which allows faculty members to claim proprietary rights over research sponsored by public funds. As Henry Etzkowitz has described it in his book The Triple Helix, the university is evolving from an ivory tower to an entrepreneurial paradigm.

As the university, as a whole, has reached outward, how have the local clusters–the disciplinary departments–fared? It is here that one might raise a red flag.

 Red Flag Day from Ridock

Red Flag Day from Ridock

Recall that for small networks to encourage creativity, outreach is not enough. External exploration requires in-group exploitation, a point that Robert Axelrod makes in his book Harnessing Complexity. However, a search of the university literature yields sparse evidence that external ideas are being capitalized upon collectively among departmental faculty.

..the overall departmental learning (and the knowledge base of the university as a whole) will likely stagnate.

To the contrary, the modus operandi within academic departments appear to be based not on collaboration but rather on competition–competition for salaries, for grants and funding as well as for peer recognition. Hence, the overall departmental learning (and the knowledge base of the university as a whole) will likely stagnate over the long term. To boot, as Carl A. Raschke has noted, new technologies will exacerbate this situation, serving to fray the ties both within the university community as well as those directed outside.

For a preview of the future, one need only consult M. Mitchell Waldrops’ book, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. In it Waldrop describes how individual scholars, who were in many cases at odds with their disciplinary departments, came together in a very synergistic fashion at the Santa Fe Institute to create the New Science of Complexity. To achieve these kind of synergies, universities might have to consider making some architectural changes to their small worlds.