Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

A Serious Playground:
The Practical Use-Value of Serendip's Web Forums


A trialogue arising Writing Descartes...

Building Two-Way Bridges:
A Conversation about Gender and Science

Anneliese Butler, who graduated from Bryn Mawr with a degree in Anthropology in 2001, and is returning as a Graduate Student in the School of Social Work and Social Research in the fall of 2004, was an early participant in one of the dialogues which arose from Writing Descartes... and also a participant in one of the "second order" quadralogues which arose among the initial discussants. But she still isn't satisfied. Here's an attempt to give Anneliese what she keeps asking for: an explanation of what Serendip's web forums are "for."

July 23, 2004

Your mind boggles mine--in a good way. I read Part the First of "Writing Sam" and felt the familiar sense of being in over my head, a feeling that characterizes my experience of the forum/a, as well. It's something to do with not yet having placed myself at the center, as you wrote--I'm still at stage one and feel more comfortable relating to you, and others, who represent (for now) centers to me, even though I can intellectually grasp that there is no center, ultimately. I'm not there yet emotionally, is the best way I can put it.

I've been trying to put my finger on another aspect of these conversations that troubles me, and I think it has to do with not fully understanding their 'practical' use. Let me be VERY quick to say that I'm not of the opinion that something must be practically useful in order to be worthwhile. But that's not really the point, because I know that these dia-/trialogs are useful to others (as is so evident in the forum and elsewhere). To me, however, they still feel like an enlightened form of socializing, a pasttime. Perhaps, I thought, this is precisely because I am NOT at the center, i.e., I am not asking my own questions yet but merely responding to others'. Furthermore, I feel disoriented as to the overall thrust(s) of these multiply intersecting stories. What are some of the ongoing questions and persistent themes? What stories are people trying to get "less wrong" by sharing them with others? I'd appreciate your thoughts on this, if you are willing...

Personal frustration aside, I'm looking forward to further -logs.

Glad you're enjoying the "boggling"--me, too!

And I very much like/appreciate your questions about the "practical use" of these forums, the report that they feel to you "like an enlightened form of socializing," your experience of disorientation because you can't find the "overall thrust(s) of these multiple intersections.

My answer, as always (smiling) is binary.

OTOH: Emily Madsen and I just spent a couple of weeks wrestling w/ just these questions, trying to settle on the "least wrong" format for our conversation about her "Dancing Bears" poem. We finally agreed (in Em's words) that "the point is the dancing and the breathing and listening," to let it "all remain" so that others could make their own meaning out of it, rather than our being too "pointed," too "incisive," too "instructive."

OTOH: the initial responses to my letter to Sam (thank you for reading it) have been

  1. (smiling) Your plays are amazing.
  2. what's the point--besides your liking the story?
  3. this is not useful
  4. most people won't be able to follow this
  5. dizzy
  6. dizzying
  7. I found myself dizzy and disoriented
  8. Your mind boggles mine--in a good way (that one's you).

So: clearly I've got some work to do in the communication department!

I hear your new questions, below, as extensions of those Lucy K. was asking earlier re: how can we talk together, without excluding any of us? Your questions now seem to be

There are a number of books, like Hofstadter and Dennett's The Mind's I, which both describe and demonstrate (in their own form and content) a rational for the sort of meandering/sort of directed conversational "play" that occurs on these web forums. At the end of The Mind's I, in his reflections on "A Conversation with Einstein's Brain," Dennett begins with the counter-argument:

"Well, all these fantasies have been fun, but..they're just so much science fiction. If you want to learn the truth--the hard facts--about something, you have to turn to real science...." This reponse conjures up a familiar but impoverished vision of science as a collection of precise mathematical formulae, meticulous experiments, and vast catalogues of species and genera, ingredients and recipes. This is the picture of science as strictly a data-gathering enterprise in which imagination is tightly reined in by incessant demands for proof....

In fact, of course, science is an unparalleled playground of the imagination....Science advances haltingly, bumping against the boundaries of the unthinkable: the things declared impossible because they are currently unimaginable. It is at the speculative frontier of thought experiment and fantasy that these boundaries get adjusted....the storytelling side of science is not just peripheral, and not just pedagogy, but the very point of it all. Science properly done is one of the humanities. (457-460)

(Of course, as an English professor, I'm particularly fond of that final line!)

There are also quite a few places on Serendip that speak to these questions about the point/purpose/usefulness of the forums. There are both general explanations of the signficance of the Web, such as Webweaving: Any Friend of Ours Is..., and descriptions of its more pointed political applications, like The Place of the U.S. in the World Community: A Discussion .

Your question about "practical use," also put me in mind of a recent essay by Grigg Mullen about his education: Is this what you mean by "practical"? Like the motors Grigg fixes, the models he builds? Something that can be, um, driven? Put to use?

I've also been talking lately with Gerry LaChance, a high school English teacher, generally about education (and life); specifically about the use-value of these forums on Serendip, and why I find them so compelling. I'd like to invite him and his good questions into our discussion here. I had asked him to join me on Serendip's Bookshelves (where you have also contributed) in commenting on Naslund's novel Ahab's Wife. He was reluctant to do so:

I'm not comfortable making commentary on a text I haven't completed....Care to tell me why you believe why my idea bears thinking? If you convince me, maybe I'll go for it!!

July 30, 2004

Two "why's," one about your interesting thinking, one about how I understand what/why Serendip works:

1. You've thrown down a gauntlet/laid out here a key key KEY idea in what makes intellectual work "work": the continuously loop between "squeezing" and "expanding"(you've heard this before; find a refresher @ Expansion and Contraction , where the key idea comes from Bethany Keffala: (expanded)IDEA >> (contracted) LANGUAGE >> (expanded) IDEA [maybe same, maybe not].)

The new aspect of this which is intriguing me just now is the idea that some of "our" problems in education have to do w/ major mis-attunements re: when to contract (="get to the point"), when to wander (=expand...not looking for/knowing what the point will be). So: students sometimes complain that my classes "meander," that there's "no point." I sometimes complain that their papers don't give the point (=thesis) "up front," but expect me to "meander" along w/ them while they look for one...

Bottom line, of course, is that we need to give time/space/energy to both-- but interesting point to me right now is that we cross/misunderstand/are not so useful to one another when we don't realize that we're locating the appropriate place for expansion/contraction in different places. This idea about the different expectations for "academic" and less formal writing is also discussed in a recent dialogue between Paul Grobstein and Chelsea Phillips.

What interested me, Gerry, was that you weren't willing to meander along with Naslund. It made me wonder: what makes you/us willing to do so? When do you/we get impatient? What keeps us meandering (in a novel, in an essay, in a classroom) w/out any guarantee of pay-off?

2. Serendip (you know) was originally intended and is for me a serious playground, a place for trying out new ideas, seeing if they fly, knowing that many won't, some will....

and one key element here is not setting the bar too high, so anyone can get into the conversation (that's one important role that the forums play, as an informal place for thinking out loud, without any heavy requirements about having done the homework, read all the previous postings, etc.)

So what i would really like about putting up our very different reactions to Naslund is that doing so

a) expands the small "bookshelf" section by trying out a different format (a range of responses, rather than a single reviewer) and
b) includes one reader who wasn't willing to finish the book--and says why.

That's VERY cool--and an important contribution to 1) above.

Goodness, I never expected to be so well-published with so little effort!...

I have yet to follow all the links, but even without doing so I can tell that my question re: use-value of forums betrays a lack of familiarity with Seredip's overall mission--this I could have easily researched myself. I've only participated in a fragmentary way, and I've not perceived myself as contributing to something larger than any given conversation. I've been invited to specific dialogs and have engaged in them with blinders on, more or less. If Serendip is a space for trying out different stories, it occurs to me that I ought to take the initiative to find the story that interests or seems...useful to me. The practicality issue, I imagine, would then resolve itself?

What story(-ies) are you working on? What are your questions? Tell me about your praxis...

It's what you get for being such a good question-asker.... and answerer, by the way: I agree entirely (and am delighted to hear your articulation) that if your engagement with and contributions to Serendip are motivated by your own story-construction, the issue of its practical use-value will quite neatly resolve itself.

There's a (fairly extensive) record of my own stories (and of the questions which motivated them) @ the English Department's Faculty Website, a description of my praxis work (and the questions that motivated it) @ Praxis Pioneer; this conversation and related sites make up a pretty thorough record of my most recent engagements....

But: about YOUR story, now...?

See on-line forum for continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts

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