Tag Archives: communities of practice

The Big Picture

My husband, Brock Evans, is a masterful story teller. Like Johnny Appleseed, Brock spent most of his life traipsing around the country, telling compelling environmental stories, and spreading seeds of hope and commitment on behalf of the environment where ever he went. Upon hearing these stories, people rose to the occasion: they stepped up, and spoke out on behalf of saving the local places so dear to their hearts.

Brock’s motto, “endless pressure, endlessly applied”, was a sure-fired recipe for success.

Brock’s motto, “endless pressure, endlessly applied,” was a sure-fired recipe for success. Hence, wonderful places such as as Hells Canyon, Congaree Swamp National Park, and the Alpine Lake Wilderness Area are now preserved.

Hells Canyon

Hells Canyon

What makes Brock’s stories so captivating is that they do not merely describe a place or an event; rather, they are elaborate tales that incorporate all of the complex and contingent factors on which success depends. By providing a larger context in which the story unfolds, the audience can step into the picture, experiencing it both vicariously and first hand. They can become, in effect, part of the community of practice.

Photography appears to be like story telling in this regard. It is inherently holistic. Although photographers may hone in on a specific target, they give it meaning–above and beyond its aesthetic value–when they situate it in the overall context that rendered its form. Georgetown’s Dean Schaefer, who teaches Looking at Photography in the Communication, Culture and Technology Program, brought this home, when he referred me to Frank Gohlke’s lovely piece, Measure of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscape (John Hopkins Press, 1992). Describing how he became enraptured by the poetic possibilities of grain elevators, Gohlke notes:

. . .the grain elevators could not be considered in isolation from the landscape; the building and it context were inseparable. At the same time, I was beginning to realize that the landscape is not a collection of fixed objects on a static spatial grid but a fluid and dynamic set of relationships. Its appearance is the result of a multitude of forces acting in time on the land itself and its human accretions.

Perhaps it is the photographer’s holistic perspective, so well characterized by Gohlke, that allowed my friend and photographer Anna Sofaer not only to discover the solstice and lunar markings on Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon (see my previous blog), but also to grasp–as no other scholars were able to do–the cultural and religious significance of these markings.

Just give me the facts, m'am

Just give me the facts, m'am

As any child will tell you, without stories and pictures, the world is pretty bleak. As well, it is not very informative. Remember the radio and TV show, Dragnet. In almost every segment, the star, Sergeant Joe Friday, appears at the scene of a crime, where a ‘frantic’ woman is attempting to describe what happened. Totally in command, the stoic hero, Joe, takes out his pencil and notebook, and says: Just give me the facts m’am. Have you every wondered, how Joe could possibly solve the mystery, if all he had to go on were the facts?

Linking for Interdisciplinary Learning

Michael Wesch’s short video, A Vision of Students Today, associates the gap in relevance between student’s interests today and educational practices at a traditional university to the widespread availability of new, and more captivating, modes of learning and interaction, now available in the digital age. My own educational experience, which began over 60 years ago, suggests that this disconnect is not necessarily a new phenomena, nor solely a product of digital technologies. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid might agree. As they argue in a paper entitled, ” The University in the Digital Age, the weaknesses in today’s educational system are due primarily to a fundamental pedagogical failure. According to the authors, the problem is that we treat education as a matter of delivering scientifically vetted content to students, rather than engaging them in an on-going shared practice of discovery.

the problem is that we treat education as a matter of delivering scientifically vetted content to students, rather than engaging them in a situated, on-going shared practice. of discovery.

The authors’ paper certainly resonates with me personally, especially their characterization of the typical approach used to teach math. In my case, two seminal experiences come to mind. The first occurred when I was in seventh grade. My teacher, Mrs. Milford, posed the following question in our class: If an airplane is traveling at 500 miles and hour, and the wind is blowing at 40 miles an hour, how fast is the plane moving? When she revealed the right answer–540 miles per hour–I was perplexed. I asked: “If the wind is traveling at 40 miles per hour, how can it catch up with a plane flying at 500 miles per hour? No doubt, a reasonable question for a seventh grader? Not according to Mrs Milford. In response to my perceived impertinence I was sent to the principal’s office where I was assigned the task of putting the top 500 U.S. cities in alphabetical order. Talk about a disconnect! Needless to say, it was some time before I raised another math question. In fact, the next occasion occurred years later, in my college algebra class, when I asked why one could not divide by zero. The answer, I was told, was because, if I did so, I would fail. Enough said!

In their paper, Brown and Duguid describe how math might be taught in the context of a community of practice. They suggest that if knowledge is to be meaningful to students, the teacher must make explicit the thought process that he or she goes through in generating a question, and seeking an answer for it. By participating in the learning process–that is to say, the practice and, yes, the culture of doing math –students will develop an intuitive sense of how to generate solutions to such problems on their own.

By participating in the learning process–that is to say, the practice and, yes, the culture of doing math— students will develop an intuitive sense of how to generate solutions to such problems on their own.

Duguid and Brown do not discount the role of technology in the educational process. To the contrary, they consider a number of ways in which technology based tools can support their vision. Having recently experimented with “blogging,” and found it very satisfying, I too would like to build it into my classes, in the form of e-portfolios. I agree with Duguid and Brown that education should prepare students for the real world by engaging them in a form of disciplinary practice. And it would seem to me that blogging within the classroom can help students and faculty achieve such a goal. However, in an interdisciplinary educational program such as CCT, a somewhat different approach might be required. Interdisciplinarity is its own unique practice. It has no-bottom line text: rather it emerges and evolves in the process of engaging with complex problems. The kind of blogging exercise that would most be most relevant in this regard would be one that links students not solely to each other, and to their faculty, but also to the non-academic groups–outside the ivory tower–wrestling with real life problems. University roles and boundaries have traditionally been relatively fixed, so these three groups have typically been remote from one another. Were they to interact around problem solving, just imagine the practice they might engender!