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Anne Dalke's picture


As it "happened," I had the good fortune to begin and end this past week by attending two contrastive conferences: last weekend I went to D.C. to talk about science education, and this weekend I participated in a workshop on the teaching of writing @ Bard College.

The first conference was sponsored by SENCER: Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities; I was invited there by Paul Grobstein, who has long for some time been engaged in innovative, interdisciplinary science education at Bryn Mawr. The second conference was one of the long-standing Institutes for Writing & Thinking; I was invited to participate by Alice Lesnick, who was moderator and one of the workshop leaders, and who also now runs the Bryn Mawr/Haverford Education Program. Paul and Alice have for some time been hosting a series of local conversations on open-ended transactional inquiry, so it is no surprise that these two conferences had much in common. What was more intriguing, and quite instructive to me, was the gaps between them, the places where they didn't quite line up, where they rubbed against each other. It is those spaces I'd like here, for a moment, to explore.

What was by far most striking for me @ the SENCER conference, as I said above, was that it was so student-centered; the discussions were cross-generational, and student perspectives were incorporated in all the presentations. SENCER is clearly positioned in the a model of pedagogy that begins and ends with questions that students ask.

In that context, it was particularly striking to me to find that presumption challenged at Bard. When our keynote speaker quoted John Cage-- "personality is a flimsy thing on which to built an art"--I found myself wondering if it was a steady enough thing on which to build a curriculum and an educational plan. When we learned that Marcel Duchamp "got tired of his own hand," and so "used chance to forget the hand," I found myself wondering if our student-centered curricula are not a little cock-eyed and lop-sided....

Our first writing workshop opened with the exercise of looking at a text, asking, "What is most important to me in this passage?" We asked next, "What is most important to the writer in this passage?" and finally, "What is most important to the text in this passage?" We were cautioned, however, to "omit question #2" in a science class, because "that's not how science works."

In other words, science as conversation, and students as participants in it, hasn't caught on yet in the humanities.

But the way the humanities (at least this particular subset of humanities teachers!) talk about learning is also strikingly similar to the way progressive science educators do, and strikingly similar to our local talks in particular about emergent systems:
  • to "make a way out of no way,"
  • trying to design a curriculum that "prepares our students for the unintended and unexpected,"
  • to (paradoxically) help them "prepare for what is not prepared for,"
  • "awakening the mind into right relationship with a happening world,"
  • to "have a mind that is able to respond...this is the gift of happiness."
The marvelous keynote address from which I take these phrases was given by Lewis Hyde, who focused our attention on "how a wandering intelligence makes itself at home in the world with what it finds": "how do we understand a lucky find?" Well, Hyde explained, there are at least three ways:
  1. "there are no accidents": they reveal a world of pattern elsewhere (this is the ancient presumption that chance is the way the gods speak to us, and divination a way of reading that message; as Milan Kundera observes in The Incredible Lightness of Being, "everything expected is mute, only chance can speak to us"; as Robert Burton says in The Anatomy of Melancholy, ""Columbus did not find America by chance...the discovery was contingent to Columbus, but necessary to God");
  2. "accident is the revelation of accident": it shows us the lack of structure in the world, not a hidden pattern, but chaos primordial (as Michel Serres observes, "the real may be sporadic, made of fluttering tatters");
  3. "chance favors the prepared mind" (as Louis Pasteur famously observed); what's important here is the mind of the finder, the way in which intelligence can be catalyzed by gift; it involves bringing intelligence and adding craft to accident; think of this as "smart luck," having the presence of mind to shape what arises, because "shift-y" and agile.
And yet--as revealed in a marvelous Freudian slip of Hyde's, in its resistance to "teaching to the test," this workshop was insistently "teaching to the text," bringing us back again and again to the authority of what had been written (and what we ourselves wrote, and so archived, pinning down the fleetingness of our minds' wanderings). The respondents to Hyde's talk found themselves unable to go much "off script," even though he surprised them with a new text. One of the audience members invited us all to think more about the "potential for conflict between the finite text and the agile mind"; how do we prepare ourselves for the unexpected in written form? One answer is of course to remember the instability of the text, and its revise-ability, to recall its origin in the oral tradition.

This error is the sign of love,
the crack in the ice where the otters breathe....
The teacher's failings in which the students ripen....
the picnic basket that slips overboard and leads to the invention of the lobster trap,
the one slack line in a poem where the listener relaxes and suddenly the poem is in your heart like a fruit wasp in an apple,
this error is the sign of love!
(Lewis Hyde)


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