Monthly Archives: January 2011

Not afraid of being a nerd

Yesterday was a good day for teaching. There really wasn’t anything special about it except that I let myself be a nerd in front of the class. Ordinarily, I try my hardest not to make a fool of myself in front of the classroom, but this time I decided, “I like statistics – they excite me, and I’m going to SHOW it!” So, in explaining how we sum scores to get an overall mean, I started talking about Harry Potter. That’s right. As fascinating as the ole’ textbook example of how room illumination affects reading speed is, I decided I was done with that. So I told them, let’s pretend I have 100 students’ data (n = 100) on how much they like Harry Potter. I ask each student, on a scale of 1 to 7 (1 = not at all, 7 = abso-freakin-lutely!) “How much do you like the Harry Potter series?” Well, Bob really loves Harry Potter, so he rates himself at a 7. He represents my first variable (X1 = 7) or score. Then Sally didn’t love it, so she puts a two (X2 = 2, which is my second variable or score), and on and on I go for 100 students. But wouldn’t be easier if I could just denote that function with summation notation? Well, I can! And this summation notation can be used to tell me to sum everyone’s scores, divide it by the number of scores, and get the average rating of Harry Potter. Et voila! The mean.

Ordinarily, I stop here because that’s all they have to learn this lesson. But no, why should lessons determine how cool class is? So I let them in on a secret – a teaser if you will. I said, “Now here’s where it gets REALLY fun! Do we want to know if men and women like Harry Potter more? Well, we can figure that out! I just get the mean of men’s attitudes toward Harry Potter and women’s attitudes and I compare them using some really cool statistics. Soon, you’ll learn how to do this, and we can actually answer these questions!” I might have done a little hop dance around the room to convey my excitement. But no, really. Stats are cool. Numbers are cool. They tell us stories about our world and the things in it. My goal this semester – to convey that to my students and get them in on the stats dance.

Solitude and connection

A friend recently sent me this article by William Major in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Dr. Major is an associate English professor at the University of Hartford’s Hillyer College. He allows his students to engage in an exercise similar to one I do in my own course here at Baylor. However, he is a lot more bold about his class assignment. In exchange for extra credit at the end of the semester, Dr. Major has his students give him their cell phones for FIVE DAYS! I must admit that when I first read this article, I I closely clutched my own smartphone at the thought of losing it for five days. But this desire, this need, this dependency on my cell phone intrigued me to read on.

As Dr. Major discussed how this experiment affects his students, I was reminded of an exercise I offer my own class for course credit.  I teach an introduction to human development/intro to college life course that covers five dimensions: intellectual, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. When we enter the spiritual dimension toward the end of the semester, I give my students the opportunity to earn class credit by practicing 8 hours of silence and solitude. In this time, they are expected to talk to no one, to put away all electronic devices (except they can listen to some music), and just be. They can read or write or think or exercise or walk or pray. But they must be in solitude. As I read Dr. Major’s summaries of some of his students’ responses, they strongly reflected my own students’ musings. Both Dr. Major and my students discussed feeling fearful, lonely, and empty at the beginning of the exercise. But as they practice solitude, students start to experience breakthrough. Many of my students have had a total revelation during these 8 hours that they have the wrong major and make a huge life change for the better. But the breakthrough only comes through the difficulty of silence and the loneliness that is felt in the absence of constant communication.

As I read Dr. Major’s comments, I was convicted of my own reliance on my smartphone and other technologies. How often am I just sitting in line, heck even sitting at a stop light, that I don’t grab my phone to check emails, texts, etc. simply out of pure boredom? Do I have what it takes to break free and practice solitude?

As I reflect on this question, I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s book, Thoughts on Solitude. This book is an exquisite piece by the Trappist monk which was borne of his own practice of solitude. He talks about the spiritual discipline of living in solitude and the need for feeling deprived and poor. Such an amazing piece. It will move and change you. But yet it would not have been inspired or created in the absence of solitude, and I am stuck by that. Such beauty, such gem-like work is created by humans when they enter into a place of solitude.

I am struck by how many great thinkers and writers express the importance of solitude. Dr. Major, in his experiment with his students, notes that his whole assignment is based off of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in which Thoreau emphasizes the importance simplicity and solitude.

So I am left asking myself how to strike a balance between solitude and connecting. It’s not that I think that technology’s ability to connect us is bad. Quite the contrary. In fact, I think that connecting is as important as solitude, but both must be approached properly. I think we must ebb and flow between connecting and pulling away in solitude. For there is a time for everything. A time to connect, and a time to be alone and think. Solitude remains essential because with all the noise in this world, it’s hard to be centered, original, or process one’s life. However, without connections, we may miss out on the greatest joys in life because we were born social creatures and social creatures we must remain. “For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed” (Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, “On Friendship”). But we should seek this communication that the great age of technology provides us with as something to be treasured, not something to kill time.

“For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.”

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, “On Friendship”

Let me seek my friends and loved ones not with time to kill, but with hours to live. And let them feel a need within me, but not the emptiness I feel in the absence of constant communication. Help me to utilize the things I have around me to become a better version of myself. To be interested and interesting. To create and inspire and to be inspired. To become a better human and to love well.


Being smart about our technology: The power of choice

Today has been a good day for reflecting on what it means to have some of the most advanced technology ever created by man. Technology has brought us far, but with its advancement come some warnings.

A recent article titled “Programmed for Love” about Sherry Turkle (whom I love) appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently. In it, Jeffery Young discusses Turkle’s research and thoughts on robots as companions and caretakers. Recently, the field of robotics has shown a dramatic increase in sophistication with robots being created to give a sense of “connection” to human beings. But Turkle warns of the pitfalls of becoming socially incapable due to taking too open an embrace of these seemingly loving robots.  Robots can never be humans, period.

The article also discusses the problematic trend of individuals becoming more and more attached their portable electronic devices. Rarely can a moment pass in which people aren’t checking their email or Facebook. Thus, Turkle warns of being careful when embracing technology.  But this issue of being careful of embracing technology is nothing new. It occurred when the printing press was invented and has continued ever since (and occurred even before that). So, the question is, “How can I be a smart consumer of technology?” Well, easy. And not so easy. Basically, one must learn to ask questions like, “How does this benefit me?” “What should I use and what should I pass up?” I like to use the analogy of food. Just because there is some food out there that will kill us and is terrible for us (e.g., fast food) doesn’t mean we just stop eating. Rather, we should be critical consumers of the food we eat. In much the same way, we shouldn’t just forget modern technology. And news flash – it’s here and keeps coming, so good luck ignoring it as the world rapidly changes around you! But we should “taste” things and figure out what helps us and increases positive things like efficiency, communication (with humans!), collaboration, creativity, interest, innovation, etc. Those things that don’t do this, we don’t have to keep using.

Conveniently enough, Kevin Kelly touched on this point in a webinar hosted today by the New Media Consortium (NMC). In it, he talks about how technology is a choice, and that we are constantly free to choose it or not.  He notes that we should not be afraid to explore and be open to trying to new things. But, he notes, we will take some of it and leave the rest. As he put it we should, “use technology that will maximize gifts.” YES! I can try anything I want and it doesn’t mean I have to keep using it. If it’s not working for me, then I should drop it! Technology is meant to enhance humans, not replace them or make them worse models of themselves.

And so, with the robots, we must do the same thing. We must find that line where robots enhance or maximize our gifts (e.g., mechanics, automobile production lines, etc.) versus replace us entirely and cause us to become less human or less involved as humans (e.g., using robots as romantic partners). For you see, technology should enhance our experience as learners, creators – as HUMANS.  Not detract from it.

The holiday hiatus

Wow.  It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, and I have to admit I have missed it.  Much more, certainly, than any of my readers.  Of course, I hope there are people out there reading Noggin Bloggin who missed, but I know that the writer often misses the practice of writing more than the audience misses the practice of reading.  I’d like to say I was on a furious strain of productivity over the holidays that prevented me from blogging.  But the truth of the matter is I just rested this break.  I got engaged.  I spent time with family.  I got a couple of manuscripts published.  And I just enjoyed being.  That’s an interesting practice for me if you know me.  I’ m a doer.  So just resting was quite a change.  But with it has come a renewal that should help amp up my little brain and get ready for this semester.

First thing on which I will post is relevant to time.  Time is something we all must deal with for better or for worse, and it is quickly becoming both my closest friend and enemy this semester.  You see – this is the first semester that I am only teaching one class (instead of my usual 2-3) and I am taking no classes (instead of my usual 2-3).  So, I am left mostly to write, research, and focus on improving my teaching for the one course I’m teaching.  In this emptiness, I am finding that I, the ultimate “doer”, am getting a little lost.  I have started making to do lists of writing projects and presentations just to make sure I’m actually doing something when I come into the office.  But having such an undefined space has been a challenge for me.  In some ways, time itself and the nature of it has changed for me drastically this semester.

As time has changed for me, I’ve had to redefine what I do in the space of time.  Ordinarily, it has been rushing to get a million deadlines met (grade this, turn in that assignment, submit this article, etc.).  But this semester, I am working to create in this empty space that currently exists for me.  The good news is that with much space comes much opportunity for creating.  For instance, I actually have time to devote to brainstorming and implementing new ideas for teaching.  For example, I am going to have my statistics class vote on things they want to know about, then I’m going to create a survey for about that topic, have them hand it out for a few people, and we will analyze it in class.  This way, they can utilize the statistics we’ve been using to inform them about something FUN they want to know about.

I’m also getting the time to think carefully through future projects and experimental design.  Additionally, I’m getting to write a ton without the burning pressure of all the other assignments I have in my life.  And I’m getting to plan my wedding.  It turns out that despite my natural organizational and planning skills, I’m not as good at this one because I’m so used to doing everything related to my work!

So balance, growth, and contemplation are the words for this semester.  Stick with me on the journey.  Hopefully it will turn out some less hurried and more fruitful posts.