Tag Archives: musing

Flow: One Painting, Eight Times

The same painting done eight different times.

One painting, eight ways.

Since we moved to Alameda last fall, a bike ride out to Alameda Point (and the decommissioned Naval Base) is part of my regular routine. Roughly a 7-mile round trip ride, it’s good exercise and I enjoy the strange isolation of the abandoned base, the wide open spaces, and the breathtaking views of San Francisco. Riding out there this weekend I was struck by the fact that every time I go, I see something previously unnoticed…an unusual building, a road option, a strangely worded sign, or a half buried railway track. This weekend it was the airport control tower, squatting at the western end of the base. How had I missed seeing that before?

My spurious powers of observation got me thinking about the value of repetition.  How much easier it is to find your way around a place that you’ve been to before.  How much more you notice on a subsequent visit. How much better a recipe turns out the second or third time its made.  How much more help you can be to someone new to a task when you yourself have done it before. And how much more I notice each time I visit Alameda Point.

Repetition is what I’m talking about here. Not redundancy. It’s pretty tough to stand up for needless duplication, boring drills, or mind-numbing recurrences.

Repetition, not redundancy.

Repetition, not redundancy.

The lesson took on a new dimension with a small water-color painting of a plucked flower, pictured at the top of this post. I sketched, then painted it. Unhappy with the result, I decided to try it again.  Better.  Maybe a third time?  Much better. Ok, so maybe I took the idea too far by trying the same painting eight times, but the resulting output was intriguing. It wasn’t a steady improvement where the eighth painting turned was the best of the bunch. Rather, some elements improved steadily – color blending, perspective on the leaves – while others (the sketched arch of the plant) were best in the earliest iterations.

It wasn’t the productivity or consistency sought in the automation of a process (such as the value of an assembly line) but there was a state of flow to the endeavor. My brain was fully engaged with the task and certain parts of it became easier and easier to do because I didn’t have to think about them too much.

Perhaps the most interesting part to me was the experience of inhabiting the process – dwelling there for more time than I normally would have devoted to it – which served up the opportunity to observe a range of possible outcomes.  There was comfort, even pleasure, in the recreation and insight to be gained.

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A Reflection on “36 Views of Mount Fuji”

My copy of 36 Views of Mount Fuji

I just finished reading Cathy Davidson’s 1993 book, 36 Views of Mount Fuji and its been swirling around in my head ever since. Many of us know Cathy Davidson from her excellent work at Duke University, her thoughtful blog, her recently released book Now You See It, as well as her work cofounding the group HASTAC (“haystack”), a network of learners dedicated to new forms of learning for the digital age. What you may not know is that, long before all of that, Dr. Davidson wrote this incredible book, a reflection on her time in Japan. She’s made a number of trips to Japan over the years, first as an English teacher at Kansai Women’s University (KWU), and then later as a speaker, visitor, and friend.  Through it all she’s developed a deep and abiding affection for the Japanese people and their culture. The book is a memoir, but it’s so much more. The roots of her current work, the pathways of her agile mind, her ability to ferret out subtle truths of human nature, her reflections on learning — these can all be found in the  pages of this book.

I loved the book and found myself going back over key passages, mining them for insights that are as fresh today as they were when she penned them nearly 20 years ago. Take, for example, this excerpt, reflecting back on a whimsical pantomime exchange she had with a Japanese friend who could not understand her broken Japanese.

“For reasons I don’t fully understand, I like wordless communication.  I love the feeling that comes when there is understanding – and even appreciation – without history, story.  There’s both anonymity and revelation, the opposite of what, in psychobabble is known as self-disclosure. The Japanese have a term for this kind of language”  ishin denshin (wordless, heart -to-heart communication).  It’s considered a profound kind of communication.”

The book is full of insights like that.  Bore holes into human nature, careful examinations of Japanese culture, insights into a way of life that fascinated and frustrated her.  And with each page you could just feel her learning, taking full advantage of each new situation to grow and extend her understanding of the human mind and its infinite complexities.

I was particularly fond of the way Cathy describes her ongoing grapple with the Japanese language.  She unflinchingly tells the learner’s tale and does not side-step her struggles. And of course it is language that holds the key to cultural insight.  Subtle shades of meaning, emphasis, formality vs. informality – so many secrets locked into thousands of years of tradition.  What is said and what is not said.  And so she perseveres, against all odds, determined to gain fluency. She learns to write kanji, she practices, she enrolls in an intensive language course at Duke, taught by a much younger, junior faculty member, and fails miserably.  In the ongoing struggle, I couldn’t help but glimpse the masonry behind Cathy’s bold 2003 strategy, as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, to give all incoming Duke students a free iPod, sparking equal storms of creativity and criticism.

I found her frank revelations about how hard it is to fit in, particularly poignant. “Like most foreigners, I’m pretty good at adapting to a new situation (or I wouldn’t enjoy traveling in the first place) but I’m also a bit of a misfit (or I would never have wanted to leave home).”  She observes that, because she is an obvious foreigner there (a gaijin), she attracted people who like to negotiate cultural differences, who are interested in figuring out and crossing those chasms.  And yet, as Cathy puts it, “every friendship I make in Japan is grounded in the unalterable recognition that, however often I may return to Japan, I will always be going home.”

Though the east and west coasts of the United States hardly present the culture gap that Cathy experienced in Japan, I often have found myself thinking very much like her with regard to my love of both the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston….

“I like both places but I also find myself profoundly critical of aspects of both countries; which ever one I’m in, the other one runs like a counter argument in my head, in a way that always makes me, somehow, fidgety.  That’s the word.  My connection with Japan makes me always anxious for the place I’m not.”

Toward the end of the book, Cathy describes her stay at The Practice House, during a fourth trip to Japan.  The Practice House is a quasi-Victorian KWU residence, furnished in Western style.  The idea was that students could live in the Practice House for a few weeks to master the basic domestic skills and routines of a typical Western homemaker.  Cathy finds it a cheerless and disturbing place – not only the oddity of viewing our Western nature through a Japanese lens but the decor and furnishing of the house had halted somewhere in the mid-1960’s. The magazines, the books, the decor – all trapped in a pre-1970’s time warp.  What an odd thing that must have been – spelunking down into a recreated model of your culture’s recent past.  But in her own unique way, Cathy manages to spin the tale of her time in the Practice House and fill it with interesting observations, helping us – as her readers – to see right along with her.  I loved the notion of the Practice House and could almost paint a picture of it in my mind, right down to the yellowed index card, pinned on the wall next to the telephone that read, “Hello, this is the Practice House.  ______here.  Who would you like to speak to?”

The book’s title is a reference to a series of block prints by the artist Katsushika Hokusai’s, known as Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1826-33).

Mount Fuji Seen Below a Wave at Kanagawa

The Hokusai prints inspired other writers as well.  The American writer, Roger Zelazny, wrote 24 views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai in 1985, a novella divided into 24 chapters, each one named after one of the prints, and each the setting for the chapter’s events as the protagonist tours the area surrounding Mt. Fuji.

Red Fuji

Cathy incorporates the prints into her book, with a small image opener on each of her book’s 16 chapters.  She uses the images as a metaphor for how difficult it was to convey a holistic picture of Japan with her book. The best she could do, she explains, was to give her perspective on Japan and Japanese culture, to record an account of her insights and experiences.  She could relate stories of personal encounters, describe scenery, capture exchanges but no matter how intimate and particular these stories were, none of them could ever presume to capture the whole.  So often, when we Americans travel, we’re encouraged upon our return to sum it up, provide a poignant image that tells the tale of our trip  or our favorite moment but, as Cathy says, it’s impossible to do.  “For me, ” says Cathy,”Hokusai’s way is more accurate.”

Lovely.

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Beginner’s Mind and Watercolors

Watercolor Tubes. All lined up and ready to go.

Yesterday I took an all-day watercolor workshop.  With just three of us learners and a very intense, French instructor, there wasn’t a lot of room to hide in that art studio – it was all learning, all the time.  Since I hadn’t held a paintbrush for many years, it was a humbling beginner’s experience for me.  A good reminder of what it feels like to be on the learner-end of the equation.

Tints from a mass stone.

We started with an introduction to color (hue, chroma and value), followed by some painting exercises to render mass tones (the pure color, right out of the tube) and tints (dilutions of that original color).  Fascinating. I couldn’t help but make note of the expert language our instructor used – how exclusionary it felt, how unwilling any of us were to ask for clarification or to possibly derail her by admitting that we didn’t understand a term she’d used a few minutes earlier. But my anxiety eased when I finally had the brush in my own hand and tried it myself.  Ah, yes…now I see what she meant (even if I didn’t remember all the terminology).

Following that, our instructor gave a few more painting demonstrations of various brush techniques. In addition to the expert terminology, there were many vague references to an understanding that would “come with time”, intuition that we’d develop with patient practice, and a “feeling” that we would eventually acquire if we worked hard. I was guessing that my peers, like me, were not planning a watercolor painting career and were most likely feeling a bit at sea.

“Your painting should float on the page!”  “Let the paint do its work, don’t control it!”  Her advice sounded interesting, but I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant or how to translate her admonishments into my actions.

Following the demos, the instructor put out some pots, shells, and a bunch of grapes on a purple cloth – a still life tableau – for us to paint.  Not really knowing where to start (were we expected to draw the whole assembly? do you draw the items first with a pencil?), we all floundered around for awhile. So many decisions to make!  Wet on wet?  Wet on dry? Brush size? Perspective? Which objects?  Realizing that I was wasting valuable workshop time, I decided to narrow my focus.  Just one brush.  Wet paint on dry paper. This color palette. And hone in on the grapes. It was just a few hours, afterall.

Once I made those decisions, I fell into a rhythm with my painting.  Just me, the palette, the brush, the paper, and the grapes.

Nothing but potential.

I love the process of mixing the colors. At the start of the workshop we were each given an enormous white enameled pan.  She showed us a method where you apply a bit of paint from the tube to the pan’s side, and then bring it down to the bottom, with water, push that over to another color with your brush, and blend.  As I worked to render my grapes, I mixed at least twelve  different combinations of red and blue….blue and yellow…that green with the ruddy violet.  A gorgeous alchemy of color splayed across the clean white of my pan.

Before I knew it, two hours had swept by, and the workshop was done.  I was happy with my painting –  one grape in particular, was my favorite.  It had just the right shades, a bit of transparency, a suggestion of roundness, and the hint of green where the ruby plum grape joined the stem. All the terminology, expert nuance, and trepidation was swept aside as I took pleasure in the satisfaction of one grape well rendered.

The finished grapes.

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Whew. Take a Moment.

Map of the Internet

Something happened this week that caused me to just stop and take a moment to consider what a freakin’ amazing thing the internet is.

So, here’s the situation.  We’re about to host a virtual world event in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Geneva Foundation for Medical Research (GFMER).  The event is one session of a many-session training course for healthcare providers around the world in sexual health and reproduction.  The participants will be tuning in from over 150 different countries, either with us in Second Life, or tuning into the live, streamed event online.

The event facilitator is Dr. Marloes Schoonheim, who is pretty freakin’ amazing herself.  She’s a demographer, researcher, and educator based in Geneva, Switzerland. Here’s her website. Here’s her blog.  And here’s her entry to the BBC My World short film competition.

We’ve been working with Marloes for a few weeks now (which has been an absolute delight), to introduce her to Second Life, pin down the content for the event, and adapt it for the unique affordances of the virtual environment.  We’re also recruiting participants to join us for the event, which will be optional.  Our first email announcement didn’t get much traction among these busy healthcare workers.  So we decided to try a different approach…

We filmed a 1-minute video “commercial” for the event, in Second Life, with Marloes’s avatar describing the plan and inviting everyone to come.  Here are the steps we took together:

1.  Drafted the script, emailed the document to Marloes.

2.  Connected via Skype to discuss.

3.  Arranged a time to meet in Second Life (6 hour time difference).

4.  Used Screenflow to video record Marloes’ avatar in the virtual world.

5.  Exported the video to MOV format and posted it to YouTube.

6.  Shared link to the video in emails to all participants in the course (in 150 countries).

Just take a moment to consider that list and the implications.  All done within 24 hours, between Boston and Geneva, without spending a nickel.  Pretty freakin’ amazing.  Here’s the video:

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Extend Learning with Social Media

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the use of social media tools to extend and expand a given learning experience.  Because I work primarily with adult learners these days – continuing medical education, management training – I’m experimenting with various models to gain perspective on what works best for them. These motivated learners have typically come for one event – a seminar or a workshop – and the challenge is to encourage reflection and application beyond the boundary of the one instance. To tap into their stong relevancy orientation and to honor their significant life experience in the bargain. These are factors that seem ripe for social media.

The challenges are the usual suspects…not enough time, unfamiliar with the tools, how to keep the motivation going as you move away from the high-impact event.

Martin Luther Nailing his "95 Theses" to the door at Wittenberg

Looking for inspiration, I came across a wonderful article in the December Economist called How Luther Went Viral.  In this well written piece, the author talks about the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther used the media of his day to spread the word about religious reform (his 1517 nailing to the door of “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences“).  Scholars have long debated the relative contributions of the printing press (a new technology at the time, allowing the mass circulation of pamphlets), versus getting the word out from the pulpit, in the oral tradition. While these tools were important, the article argues that the underlying critical factor at work was the system of media sharing along social networks that allowed the spread of these new ideas – what we refer to today in new media parlance as “the network effect”.

It turns out that Luther was pretty darned good at this. For instance, he opted to write in German (as opposed to the more scholarly Latin), he avoided regional vocabulary to ensure that his message had impact in wider geographical circles, he made full use of all the media of his day (woodcuts and songs as well as the pamphlets), and he recognized (and leveraged!) the way his media passed from one person to another which added up quickly to a wider audience than he originally expected.

The article goes on to explain that modern media theorists refer to participants in such a situation as the “networked public”, rather than an “audience”.  The distinction being that the people hearing Luther’s message were doing far more than just listening. This 16th century networked public discussed, participated, amplified and extended the message. So that each time the word passed along, it grew bigger and more impactful.

Bingo. That seems to me to be the key – reframe our instructional design so that we think of our learners as a “networked public” and create environments where they can do so much more than consume information.

Can I suggest a few actionable principles (and please, add your thoughts for more!):

– A regular schedule. The most effective social media-connected groups include a regular, heartbeat ritual to them – a weekly gathering, a daily post, or a regularly scheduled webinar – the instance is created to fit the needs of the group but the consistency is vital.
– Set intentions. Just as with any collaborating group, it’s critical to set out a clear intention for the group – what is it that we hope to achieve? – and then inform our design with those goals.
– Amplify the message. Seed and encourage plenty of opportunities for the networked participants to participate, discuss, dissect, share, apply and spread what is learned.
– The importance of facilitation. These experiments require a strong facilitator to urge everyone along, make connections, moderate discussion, and provide tactical support when needed.
– The importance of strong and weak ties. The most effective groups (whether in person or connected from a distance via social media) are those that consist of people with strong ties (those who know each other well and have worked together before) and weak ties (people new to the group).
– A combination of synchronous and asynchronous work.  It works well for the learners to have some opportunities to extend their learning right along with their peers, all together – and some opportunities to do so on their own time, when it’s convenient.  A healthy mix of both.
– The tools don’t matter.  Tools change – but the principles are the same.  While we’ll need to use and understand the tools in order to use them well, we want to keep our eye trained on what they allow us to do (the affordance).
What else?

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Listening with Big Ears

I’ve been thinking a lot about listening these days. Mostly because I’ve had to do quite a bit of it. I’m working on a new project that involves a number of stakeholders with very different opinions about the planned outcomes. Wending our way to agreement involves some pretty serious listening.

So, I’ve been asking myself, what makes for good listening?  When you think about good listeners you’ve come across, what qualities do they have?  What makes them a good listener and how do they do it?  (please add your thoughts to the comments here, as I would love to expand this topic). As I usually do when chewing on something, I ask my trusted friends and colleagues what they think (they always come up with much savvier ideas than I can on my own).

Sure enough, they came up with all kinds of good stuff. And, as with any big, meaty question there is never one tidy answer. There are a number of listening approaches that work and a range of qualities that make different people good listeners. But it seems to me that a prime quality is the importance of listening without an agenda. As my friend, Chalon Bridges, told me listening is all about genuine curiosity, an interest in understanding others, a willingness to absorb new information, and a desire to grapple with colliding ideas and ambiguity – to not know the answer. 

Hmm…yes.  I think that “not knowing the answer” part is really important. I would refer to that as listening without an agenda. In conversations I often find that the listeners are not really listening, rather they are trolling for a shard of information that just might support their own point which they are so eager to make. They are listening, with an agenda, expecting (and then finding!) what they need to torque the conversation their way. Unfortunately this kind of listening ignores all the other information that comes in. When we listen this way, we filter and prevent ourselves from learning anything new or surprising. Listening well, without anticipating the answer, or when we’re careful to not creative ourselves too specific a map, we can leave ourselves open to new interpretations and information.

My friend, Ilona Miko (who is a neuroscientist) reminded me that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing, of course, is a sensory process and listening is a cognitive translation of those hearing sensations.  She assures me that both are quite active processes, physiologically, but she went on to say that, for her, listening is also an active process consciously.  As in, when she listens, she finds that she needs to ask a lot of questions.  The questions help to clarify what is being said and adds to the information exchange. I know from being listened to by Ilona that her questions have the added benefit of reassuring the speaker that they are being carefully attended.

I also asked my friend, Josh Frost what he thinks and he came back with a favorite quote of his, from the movie, Pulp Fiction which I thought summed it all up beautifully.  It’s this exchange between Uma Thurman and John Travolta:

Pulp Fiction

 

UT:  “Do you listen, or do you wait to talk?”

JT, after thinking for a moment: “I have to confess that I wait to talk. But I’m working on it.”

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“The Concentrated Force of the Buried Past”

The cover of Stephen Greenblatt's new book.

I went to hear the author, Stephen Greenblatt, speak at the Concord Festival of Authors this week.  Greenblatt is a Harvard literary critic, theorist and scholar, the author of many books, who is credited as one of the founders of the “new historicism” (which he refers to as “cultural poetics”).  He is most well-known for his book Will in the World, a biography of Williams Shakespeare, which positioned Shakespeare’s work firmly in his time – the idea that these great works should be properly considered in the time, the environment, in which Shakespeare lived – laying bare the mutual permeability between the literary and the historical.  Here’s what Greenblatt has to say about his work:

“My deep, ongoing interest is in the relation between literature and history, the process through which certain remarkable works of art are at once embedded in a highly specific life-world and seem to pull free of that life-world. I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago”

Greenblatt is on the speaking circuit because of his new book, Swerve:  How the World Became Modern.  This book tells the story of a Roman named Lucretius who wrote a poem (“On The Nature of Things“) 2000 years ago, detailing his thoughts on everything from creation to religion to nature to death. The observations in his poem were highly technical and, in many ways, presaged modern science.  In particular, Lucretius described the universe as a collection of tiny atom-like particles in perpetual motion.  Deviations – or “swerves” – in these motions cause collision and alternate forms.  As Greenblatt says, “So much that is in Einstein or Freud or Darwin or Marx as there in the poem.”  Not only that but Lucretius postulated that the gods may exist, but they are utterly indifferent to humans, there is no soul and no afterlife – when we die, our “atoms” disperse and who we were becomes nothingness (views that are remarkably close to secular humanists). Pretty heady stuff for Roman times – and the times after.  Not surprisingly, Lucretius’s poem was banned as it was seen as heretical and disturbing. And so the poem disappeared.

Enter Poggio Bracciolini – a pre-Renaissance, Florentine “book hunter” who found freedom in pursuing the wisdom of the ancients, hunting down forgotten texts and manuscripts in the monasteries of Europe.  Greenblatt’s book chronicles Poggio’s story and, per his “historicism”, renders him in his time and place. Poggio discovered Lucretius’s poem in a monastery in southern Germany in 1417.  Once he delivered the poem, and rescued it from obscurity, the power of its idea did their work. Greenblatt traces the emergence of the poem’s impact through time – the Renaissance, Thomas More, Montaigne, Botticelli, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson – to being available for purchase today on Amazon.

In his talk at the Concord Festival of Authors, Greenblatt told a number of fascinating stories about his research for the book and about Poggio and Lucretius.  One story in particular stood out for me in its relationship to the McLuhan reading we’ve been doing this week.  And that is Greenblatt’s evaluation of Lucretius’s work as a Latin poem.  Apparently it is an intensely beautiful poem and a powerful execution of Latin at it’s best.  Through the years (before the poem was banned), school teachers regularly assigned it to their Latin students as a translation exercise.  Scholars saw the poem as a riveting challenge, its Latin structure intensely complex and beautiful.  What a wonderful example of the medium being the message.  It mattered that Lucretius’s ideas were presented in the form of a poem.

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