Artifacts and Learning

ModelCropFor some reason, this is the item that immediately came to mind when I read Kimberly, Alma and Joycelyn’s invitation last week.  For those of you unfamiliar with post-Soviet retro kitsch, this is a lovingly rendered model of an early space ship, procured at a flea market outside Moscow about fifty years after the vessels that inspired it were first launched.   Thinking about how this Sputnik  “represents my work” brings up obvious resonances with one of my favorite courses – Soviet history.  The space program and the Soviet Union’s commitment to using technology to master the heavens as well as the earth, and to remake “man” along the way, is one of the main themes of the course.  And the drama and global interest in the early chapters of the space race remain compelling for 21st-century learners.  Like the Russian Revolution and World War II, the space race is something most people think they “know” something about, but are often surprised when that “knowledge” evolves considerably with a bit of study, encouragement, and reflection.  So the model Sputnik represents my work because it is anchored to particular historical context, created in a different historical situation, and invites learners of all ages (in a third historical context) to engage with the intellectual, material, and cultural legacy of one of the great proxy struggles of the Cold War.

When I started reading Ivan Illich, I was pretty sure I would need to find a different artifact. (Once again our reading for this week completely captivated me!  Every week I think that this course has maxed out its potential to get my happy, creative, “I love my job” juices flowing…and every week, I’m wrong.  What a great feeling!)  I found much in “Deschooling Society” that made me question how accessible the artifacts of education are, and wonder how best to make “educational equipment” more accessible for self-directed learning 24/7.  And I could (should?) write a whole separate post about Illich’s perspectives on the student-teacher relationship – I’m still struggling with what often seems to be a reductive understanding of learning as “skills.” ModelDogsCropShortBut in the end, I’m sticking with my little wooden sputnik.  For as any learning web would quickly discover, the model is both more and less than what it appears to be.  Using a combination of careful inspection (Why are there little wooden dogs inside the model? Why does the model look a lot like an egg?)unpaintedWoodenEgg and skilled consultation with peers and other educators (Which space ship is this supposed to be? Why is that important?), we realize that although the model falls way short of historical accuracy and museum-quality craftsmanship, it represents a grand vision, and a salient moment when the learning webs of a forward-thinking cohort of scientists forever altered the way humanity sees life on Earth.

back-up-of-first-russian-sputniksputnik2b

Food, Pest, Pet…Research Subject

Jonathon Burt’s introduction to Rat prompted many of us to think long and hard about why our 21st-century American reactions to a ubiquitous rodent are so strong and so negative.  Looking at the rat in other contexts provides a somewhat different perspective.  For example, the Rat is the first animal of the Chinese horoscope cycle. Rat - Ai WeiWei's RatThe Rat conveys many positive qualities to people born under its sign, including leadership, charm, passion and practicality. Year of the Rat people might also be cruel, controlling and exploitative, which reminds us that good and evil are inseparable.  One requires the other, and problems arise when balance is disrupted.

Other cultures have a more practical approach to mice (which belong to the same sub-family of the rodentia order as rats — the murinae).  In Malawi poached mice on sticks (captured in freshly harvested corn fields) are considered a culinary delicacy.mice

But I find that rats and mouse brethren get especially interesting here in the West in the late 19th / early 20th centuries, when creatures mainly seen as “vermin” join the ranks of pets and then become the first purpose bred laboratory animals.  Why and how did this transformation come about and why do rats still evoke such complex and strong responses from us?  Bill’s fabulous post noted that “there is no species whose narrative has been as forever altered by contact with humanity as the rat.”  I’m wondering what would happen if we inverted the query:  Where would we be without rats and how has the human condition changed as a result of our interactions with this creature?  (As you know, this is a central question of the research projects, and I am looking forward to learning about how everyone sees this issue in terms of the species they’ve been working with throughout the semester.)

Our readings by Karen A. Rader and Kenneth J. Shapiro present us with a good analytical framework for thinking about how the process of domestication shaped human-rat (mouse) interactions over the last century or so.  Camilla and Ben have some excellent insights about how rats double as humans, serving as models for humans in biomedical experiments, and anthropomorphic citizens of parallel societies in young adult fiction.  Ai Wei-Wei’s zodiac rat, pictured above, portrays the ambiguity of the rat-human divide more powerfully than many words could. Disney’s Mickey, the world’s most famous mouse has long provided scholars with insight about a creature, who in Karen Raber asserts “redefines or challenges conventional zoological and social understanding” (p. 389).  Stephen J. Gould’s 1979 essay on neotony still provides an excellent jumping off point for those wanting to learn more.micearmyweb

I’m intrigued by the nexus of domestication, affection, revulsion, and technology we find in contemporary American attitudes about rats and mice.  Connor makes some good points about the importance of these rodents to scientific research, and I agree that the contribution to human welfare these animals have made is significant.  I think it’s important, however, to consider Shapiro’s and Raber’s analysis closely – regardless of what one thinks about the ethics of animal testing.  In Shapiro’s article, we find a nuanced dissection (sorry!) of the synergy between the development of the concept of the “lab animal” and the domestication of rats for that purpose.  The application of selective breeding, specific kinds of socialization, and the creation of new “habitats” / confinement systems facilitated the emergence of the domestic lab rat (from the Norway rat) and articulated and shaped the meaning (social construction) of those animals for researchers and human audiences outside the lab.  Shapiro’s assertion that rodents make poor models for humans, especially in psychological research presents us with some uncomfortable questions, as does Donna Haraway’s concept of the “cyborg” animal, which is equal parts nature, culture, and technology (think OncoMouseTM).

Finally, for all of their negative cultural baggage, stigma as vermin and unwilling contribution to scientific research, rats can be that most favored of American creatures – the domesticated pet. Rats are clean, sociable, and come in a rainbow of colors.  Unlike other rodents sold in pet stores, they rarely bite, and are excellent companions for young children. Ginger and Snap 2004 The first two rats our family adopted were rescued from the snake food tank at a local pet store (our enthusiasm for raising domestic animals to feed captive wild animals would also be worth thinking through more carefully).  In their two years with us they provided endless hours of entertainment and companionship, loved nothing more than to snuggle into a pocket for a nap, and displayed remarkable calm in the face of the cat’s obviously predatory intentions.  If they could write about their histories with us, I wonder what they would say?

Interaction, Agency and Ants

 

ant.sim.110810-530pxThis week my post-seminar musings circled back to our discussion about what we expect of our computers and how we understand and imagine them.  I found thinking about what exactly what we mean by “interaction” pretty interesting. I’m going to duck the whole question about how good or bad Brenda Laurel is on Aristotle and focus instead on the issue that Janine raised when we were talking about agency and computers.

There’s much that resonates with me in Brenda Laurel’s definition of agents as “entities that can initiate and perform actions” (p. 569).  Thinking about my computer, or my ipad, or my Iphone, I definitely see a potential there for performing actions, a potential that is realized countless times over the course of any given day. Initiation is a bit more complex, but it seems to me that when I tell Siri to send a text to Alan, “she” initiates the action by executing the program that calls up the text window and then “asks” me what I want to say in that text.  I don’t think I have a theory of mind about Siri. I do expect “her” to interact with me so that we can successfully accomplish something I couldn’t do by myself. And at some level it does feel like I’m engaging a cognitive entity when I use my phone. But because I know that Siri is a suite of programs and technologies that can’t make associative leaps independently of what her programmers gave her, I understand that her limits are absolute – she cannot be “trained” to quit confusing “Alan” with “Ellen.”  She does know that Alan is my brother because she was programmed to ask “what is your brother’s name” the first time I said “send my brother a text.”  But when I asked her to send a text to my mother, she asked what her name was, and when I told her she replied: “there is no Bonnie in your contacts.”  I’m pretty sure that the next time Siri gets an upgrade there will be an association between “mother” and “mom” somewhere in her code, but this is not something that Siri can develop (initiate) on her own.  At the end of the day, she is the creation of her programmers and designers.  In some sense of the word she is “organic” – that is complete and more than the sum of her inter-related parts.  But she is not unique.  My Siri is just like your Siri and every other Siri out there, even if she does call me “Amy.”

But you can interact with her.  I liked Janine’s assertion that computers are technologies or tools that help humans accomplish specific tasks, but not entities with which we interact. We both thought about how the concept of “interaction” squared with what we think about humans’ use of other technologies.  I suggested cars, skiis, and a cello, and Janine proposed a broom. I agree that brooms do not have agency. But you might be able to make a case for agency and interaction with skiis, and certainly with a cello.

After class I also thought about how we understand our interactions with some animals (where the “theory of mind” issue is often invoked to deny animal agency). Dogs, for example, can certainly initiate and perform actions. They do things for us that are beyond our solo capabilities (herding sheep, finding a lost child).  And mine have never confused Alan with Ellen or not known who “mom” was. They continue to learn over the course of their lifetime, without a software upgrade. They are also unique individuals, a claim that can be made about cellos (and flutes) as well.  All flutes might have the same components, but each has its own feel and sound. Musicians make music with their instruments.  Through breath and/or touch they animate the flute to create something exquisite and unique. The performer might initiate the breath or the touch, but it is the synergy between the breath, the fingers, and the flute that creates the sound we recognize as music. Of course instruments are technologies in some ways, as are some animals at least some of the time.

I feel like I should write something about human-computer interaction in terms of ANT (Actor Network Theory) but am going to end with Sim Ant as a reminder of the connections between cognition, play and agency – as well as the generational differential we’ve talked about before in terms of how we respond to emerging digital technologies.  Here’s Will Wright’s description of the development of Sim Ant and the game’s connections to animal culture:

“The next game I did was called SimAnt; it was actually based on the work of Edward O. Wilson, who is the premier myrmecologist in the world. He had just published this very large book called The Ants18 that won the Pulitzer Prize that year. Ants have always fascinated me because of their emergent behavior. Any single ant is really stupid, and you sit there and try to understand what makes it tick. If you put a bunch of these little stupid components together, you get a colony-level intelligence that’s remarkable, rivaling that of a dog or something. It’s really remarkable, and it’s like an intelligence that you can deconstruct. Ten- and fifteen-year-olds really got into SimAnt; it was really successful with that group. Most adults didn’t play it long enough to realize the depth of ant behavior and mistook it for a game about battling ants.”

 

 

 

 

Imagination vs. Information Transfer

 

photo(17)Disclaimer:  I have the attention span of a flea and a “to-do” list that makes me itch for time alone with a real book today….

Last week’s session with Janet Murray kept me happily engaged through the snowstorm and well into the weekend.  But among the many ideas that emerged from the discussion, Jocelyn’s reminder that we still await real change from social media gnawed at my distracted musings as I shoveled piles of electronic paperwork, tried to carve out a few hours to write, and prepared for my teaching week.

As I’ve mentioned in class several times, my honors seminar students are blogging this semester about the weekly readings and using blogs to build out their term research projects.  Learning to blog with this group has been a heady, inspiring experience for me, and the class seems more engaged with the course content and each other and more self-motivated to excel than any group I’ve worked with in the last several years.  I believe that the blogging medium has a lot to do with this (thank-you, Gardner!).  When the class meets in person everyone has already posted about the reading and commented on each others’ posts.  The quality of the posts and of the in-class discussions is much more sophisticated and nuanced than I normally expect – even from honors students.  In fact our class discussions are so rich that the students asked if “we” could have notes on them.  So now we have a collective google.doc for every session with an assigned “synthesizer” and 10 invested recorders. If the synthesizer misses something or anyone in the class has something to add, they start typing on the doc or copying a link or image into it.  People consult and modify the doc long after class ends, and I post finished product as a PDF on the motherblog the next day.

Back to Jocelyn and real change.  I feel like blogging has transformed the learning environment in my seminar in all kinds of (mostly) wonderful ways.  Thumbs up.  Bring it on.  I’m hooked.  But the reason I’m hooked has everything to do with the potential this format offers for enhancing an inherently social dynamic of learning and finding meaning in what you learn.  Like many others, I’m concerned about the advent of the MOOC era (ok, I’m a Russian historian, so “concern” for me really means “certain this will end badly but suffering is what we do best and prevailing is our destiny”).  I appreciated Nathan’s thoughts on online learning last week, and the other Amy’s note about the difference between knowledge transfer and kinds of soft skills that are both essential to effective education.  MOOCs feel like “real change” to me, but not of the kind we’d necessarily hope for or welcome.  As a fellow Russian historian recently noted, MOOCs may have much to offer in an ancient and venerable tradition of autodidactism.  If the goal of the “delivery system” is to convey information and the goal of the student is to assimilate it and “get credit” for doing that, then MOOCs might be ok in some contexts some of the time.  The danger lies, I think, in confusing or conflating this kind of “teaching” with the more complex kinds of learning and discovery that humans pursue.  The latter depend heavily on social relationships and social context. (Joshua Sanborn’s post lays this out beautifully.) The “real change” I’m looking for in using on-line tools and social media will intensify and expand the quality and nature of the interactions I have with students and their ideas. My hope is that “real” social change of the kind Jocelyn asks for might ensue. I love that our class invokes the digital imagination, and hope we can resist the reduction of higher education to information transfer.

Like a Pizza, or maybe a Theremin?

Theremin

Last wednesday’s class kept me thinking well into the evening. (Yes, this post has been in the works for a while.  I’m thinking of this as an elastic week.)  I loved how Janine and Nathan framed our discussion — there was just the right balance between supplementary / explanatory nuggets and open exchange. And thinking about representation and the ways in which humans, as highly visual creatures, developed abstract recordings of language (writing) from pictograms made me appreciate the kind of assumptions and expectations we bring to the computer, nascent even in the amazing vision of Kay and Goldberg’s Dynabook.  (That letters such as A, C, H, L and I come from our pastoral past is important too, but that’s the class I’m teaching, not the one I’m taking…)  But what I really found compelling was the computer as pizza metaphor.  Like pizzas, computers share some things: crust = memory/hard drive; sauce =processor; cheese =screen on which the bubbles and waves of input and the icons (toppings) of applications appear?  You can choose your toppings and your apps and your components.  If you need skype or mushrooms you can have them. And if you hate anchovies you can leave them (or the DVD drive) off.  You can also have just a piece of a pizza – or a tablet instead of a laptop.

Unless you have celiac disease.  In that case you can’t have pizza (unless it has a gluten-free crust, which most people will tell you is as close to the real deal as a slot machine is to a real computer.)  But you can still have a computer.  And while the Dynabook’s creators thought about flutes, I’m wondering if they might also have known about the Theremin, an early electronic instrument named after its Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, and known to most of us as the signature special effect of the Beach Boys’ hit, Good Vibrations and many bad horror movies.  Unlike the flute, which is animated by the breath, the Theremin responds to hand gestures.  Although it’s composition is less plastic than a pizza’s, it responds to the subtlest and most varied inputs.  Children, rock stars, and spies that came in from the cold could all play it. And as this video of a Theremin performance indicates, the results could be quite elegant.

 

Animal Studies

There were so many good papers and interesting, accomplished people at the Living With Animals Conference at Eastern Kentucky University! One rarely finds such a collegial, kind, smart, and diverse group coming together around anything — much less the issue of animals in the academy.  So this meeting was truly a treat. I definitely can’t do the whole experience justice in this post, so I’ll just touch on the highlights: Every session I attended kept me riveted for the duration.  A “Living with Horses” session on Thursday addressed the subtle and profound issues of helping people and horses who fall on hard times through Equine Rescue services, as well as the changing paradigms and ethics of enlisting horses in therapeutic interventions for humans. The third paper in this session used Jane Smiley’s work, especially her fiction for juveniles, to consider the ways children and horses both function as “live property” in the contemporary United States.

Friday began with a wonderfully rich and entertaining presentation by Margo DeMello, about teaching “Human-Animal Studies.”  This theme carried over to the session where I talked about our blogging project. I also learned about how to incorporate animal studies into a first-year seminar with a service-learning component, how the occupational  therapy program at Eastern Kentucky University engages a broad spectrum of learners (and horses), and how inquiry-based learning (using the Project Dragonfly QUEST model) can be used in an animal ethics course. The afternoon was devoted to Animal Subjectivity.  Pamela Ashmore’s presentation raised many troubling questions about the often noble goals and incredibly high physical and monetary costs of taking non-human primates into the home as “pets.”  Even more confounding, was Lynn White Miles’ paper about the thirty year journey of Chantek the orangutang from research subject to enculturated child, back to research subject, and then (currently) to exhibition object (at the Atlanta Zoo).

The highlight of the day was a round table session about setting up Animal Studies programs featuring Bob Mitchell, conference organizer and founder of the Animal Studies major at EKU. This is the first major of its kind, and will produce its first graduates this spring.  The curriculum is rigorous, practical and elegantly balanced: Students develop in-depth competence in Arts and Humanities (courses such as Animals in History, Animal Ethics, Cultural Anthropology), they gain a solid footing in the sciences with coursework in zoology, ecology, comparative psychology, human evolution, etc., and they complete an “applied” concentration in conservation, animal science, and animals and the law.  Capstone coursework and options for field study and study abroad provide the flexibility and focus for an academic experience grounded in the three major elements of Animal Studies: study of the animal, study of human interactions with animals, and study of relationships between animals and people.

I had to leave mid-day on Saturday to avoid driving through the spring snow storm that swept off the flatland and into our mountains this morning.  I hated to miss the tour of the Kentucky Horse Park today, but was grateful for the chance to hear Ken Shapiro’s final keynote about the future of Human-Animal Studies and some very compelling papers before heading home. These included Jessica Bell’s analysis of how the new “naturalization” of the circus in major media outlets invokes discourses of conservation, animal protection, and domestication to legitimize the exploitation of animals, especially elephants. Jeannette Vaught’s presentation on the connection between commercial horse slaughter and private horse cloning raised a host of issues, none of which sit easily with popular conceptions of equine sport, biomedical advances, and the monetary “value” of individual horses.  The shifting sands on which equine capital is evaluated and which determine the fate of race horses at the end of their career received nuanced and sophisticated analysis from Tamar Victoria Scoggin-McKee, whose fieldwork with Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorse Rescue promises to produce a fabulous dissertation.

Scoggin-McKee also provided a thorough update on the conference via Twitter (#livingwithanimalseku).

Living with Animals

As academic conferences go, Living with Animals has been just fabulous.  A full update will have to wait until I am reunited with a full keyboard, but I can’t call it quits on the day without noting how invigorating and exciting it’s been to hear terrific papers, share ideas, and talk about our blogging project with a diverse group of kindred spirits. Thanks, UH3004 for taking on the “blogging domestication” project with me!

Living with Animals Program
Living with Animals Program