To Africa

Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya

Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya

In October, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Kenya to facilitate a week-long faculty and staff workshop about Prior Learning Assessment at Tangaza College in Nairobi.  I am grateful to my colleagues at the School for New Learning of DePaul University for inviting me to participate!

In a bookstore in Nairobi, I purchased Beryl Markham’s autobiographical account of her time in Africa titled West with the Night.  Here’s a particularly relevant and poignant paragraph that captured my attention:

“There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa — and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime. Whoever writes a new one can afford a certain complacency in the knowledge that his is a new picture agreeing with no one else’s, but likely to be haughtily disagreed with by all those who believed in some other Africa. … Being thus all things to all authors, it follows, I suppose, that Africa must be all things to all readers. . . . Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. ”
― Beryl Markham, West with the Night

Read more about my trip here: Out to Africa

Now Here’s An Idea: Hospitality In Higher Education

I’m devouring The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, by Parker Palmer, Arthur Zajonc, and Megan Scribner right now. It’s a good read. It’s a thought-provoking read. It’s an inspiring read. It gives me hope.

One premise put forth by Palmer is the idea that a key virtue in higher education that is not always present is hospitality. He says it much better than I can summarize, so here goes his argument:

Learning spaces need to be hospitable spaces not merely because kindness is a good idea but because real education requires rigor. In a counterintuitive way, hospitality supports rigor by supporting community, and the proof can be found in everyday classroom experience.

Pedagogical rigor requires more than a professor doing a rigorous solo act, which can feel more like rigor mortis from where the student sits. A classroom becomes rigorous when a student is able to raise his or her hand and say, “I disagree with what you just said, professor.” Or, at even greater personal risk, “I disagree with what my friend in the second row just said.” Or, pulling out all the stops, “Excuse me, I don’t understand anything that’s been said in here for the past two weeks. Could someone please explain?”

Admitting ignorance and encountering diverse viewpoints on facts and interpretations require us to clarify our assertions, explain ourselves at deeper levels and perhaps, mirabile dictu, even change our minds. Professors who encourage student behaviors such as these invite true intellectual rigor, the kind that emerges from a community of inquiry and is far more educational than a nonstop diet of “rigorous” lectures. From where the students sit, these behaviors are also riskier than keeping one’s head down and taking notes. That kind of behavior is not going to happen in a class that lacks hospitality, a class where people feel too threatened to say anything that might get them crosswise with the professor or other students. (pgs. 29-30)

I read this passage and I found myself asking this: What would an entire university dedicated to hospitality, as Palmer describes, look like? How might it be organized? Might it be a “learning paradigm college” as John Tagg calls for? Might we engage in assessment as an act of care, as I keep yammering about? Might we look at academic disciplines differently, at credits and seat time and accreditation and transcripts and requirements and learning outcomes and and and … and all that, differently? I am thinking that the simple (yet complex) virtue of hospitality, well-developed and enacted across an institution, could in fact result in a transformation of the academy, as the subtitle of this text suggests.

And I am also thinking that hospitality is not at all a bad place for true renewal and transformation in higher education to begin. In fact, it might be the only place from which people feel invited and welcome to contribute to real change.

A No-Brainer

A Human Brain: Thanks to EUSKALANATO on Flickr for making this image available.

I am reading a book right now recommended by a friend called How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer.  She recommended this to me when I needed to make a decision and had consulted her; her statement to me was, “You actually already know the answer. Now you’re just trying to rationalize it.” And then she loaned me this book.

I have only read the first few chapters, and what I am learning is that we don’t yet know a lot about how our brains all work (“tip of the iceberg,” as one neuroscientist observed) , but we do know that they can work in amazing ways and that we should pay attention to what we do know.

Several years ago, I attended a conference about teaching and learning, and one idea that I took away was that “perfect practice makes perfect.” I have always been a skeptic of “perfect” (who needs that pressure?),  but the idea is that if you practice something incorrectly, it will likely become lodged in your brain incorrectly. And if you practice it correctly, it will likely become lodged in your brain correctly. Kind of a no-brainer (no pun intended), but for an educator, it’s a neat idea to keep in mind and I apply the idea in all sorts of ways with my students.

Lehrer’s book echoes a slightly different take on this idea, though. He tells the story of Bill Robertie, a champion backgammon player. As Lehrer points out, Robertie didn’t become a world champion by playing a lot of backgammon: “It’s not the quantity of practice, it’s the quality.” By this he doesn’t mean practicing perfectly; instead, he argues for critically reflecting on the errors.

According to Robertie, the most effective way to get better is to focus on your mistakes. In other words, you need to consciously consider the errors being internalized. . . Expertise is simply the wisdom that emerges from cellular error. Mistakes aren’t things to be discouraged. On the contrary, they should be cultivated and carefully investigated. (p. 51)

I’ve argued for learning from our mistakes before and I’ve shared my All Time Favorite Quote that “reflection is the process by which experience is turned into learning” (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985). Robertie has argued for the same thing, and Lehrer explains the neuroscience that makes it all work. Basically:

If you want to be good at something, practice it. And when you mess up, analyze the mistakes and learn from them.

That, in a nutshell, is possibly all you may need to know about brain science (or at least all you need to know to be a PLA writer). Let your dopamine neurons and anterior cingulate cortex do the work that they are supposed to: that’s what they do best, for they’ve been practicing it, “perfectly,” for a very long time.

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Boud, D., Keogh, R., and Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning experience into learning. Kogan Page: London.

Installment #5: What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning

Installment #5 is all about books, because each and every day, Mac reminds me just how important books are. Books have become Mac’s beloved friends: they comfort him when he’s upset, they entertain him when he’s bored, they help him wake up and go to sleep, and they teach him.

We  take Dr. Seuss’s ABC book to his school to share every day (every day!), and every night we  read the dinosaur book AND the tadpole book before bed, with frequent perusals into a book that Elayna Alexandra, one of our students, illustrated and so kindly gave us called Sherman the Frog Meets the Snow Princess.

Which of these are the most reliable academic sources?

And like kids, we adults need good books to be our friends and our teachers as well.  Pam Houston’s short stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness and Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose are two books that have come to be best friends of mine: I’ve read each one numerous times and every time I do, I gain new insight into myself.  Good stories indeed, but also good learning!

Of course, adult learners also need books to help us with our course work. Though we have a lot of prior knowledge and know a lot about … well …  a lot, sometimes time in the library or a good bookstore, and with our noses in books and articles and research databases, is just what is needed to fill in the gaps.  The literature review for my dissertation was 36 pages of gap-filling, and that doesn’t count all the stuff I read that didn‘t go in the review! (For those of you who are Marylhurst students, I cannot say enough good things about the great resources and folks at Shoen Library.)

This whole book thing reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about books (to be honest, I remember it because it was one of the quotes on the wallpaper in the bathroom of the house I grew up in):

The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Oh, and that reminds me of another one of my favorite quotes about books:

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.  ~Groucho Marx

Previous installments of What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning:

#1 – Learning Can Happen When We Challenge our Perspectives

#2 – Learning is Developmental

#3 – We Learn by Direct Experience

#4 – We Learn by Observing Others, Even If Others Are Not Experts

Just For Fun

Several Christmases ago, my grandma was wearing a black silky shirt covered with colorful sequins in various shapes of Christmas decorations. It was a pretty flashy shirt for a 90-year old to be wearing at 9am in the morning. The time for Christmas dinner came and she declared that she needed to go change into her Christmas outfit. My husband asked  her, “So, what’s that you’re wearing then?” and she replied, “Oh this is my ‘just for fun’ shirt.”

penroseCalling upon Grandma’s discernment between the serious and the “just for fun,” here are the “just for fun” books sitting on my nightstand this week. I am reading them in no particular order other than the dates they are due back to the library.

Age Is Just A Number, by Dara Torres — because I saw her on The Daily Show and I thought we could be really great friends if a) I were a swimmer, athletic, competitive, or coach-able, or b) I lived next door to her in Florida and could bring her a plate of my healthy banana cookies and she could invite me in for coffee and we could swap kid stories, or c) she was desperate for friends, which I doubt that she is.  I usually am not one to read biographies — especially those of sports stars (with the exception of Phil Jackson) — but in this case, I appreciate her ideas about how the limits of middle-age are, in many ways, more socially or mentally constructed than physically determined.

The Happiest Toddler on the Block — because Karp’s advice in The Happiest Baby on the Block saved me from losing my mind about 21 months ago, so I figured his theories about dealing with the irrationality of toddlers might save me again. I have so much faith in this guy that I’ve even put a library hold on the DVD because I think seeing him deal with kids is much better than reading about it.  I’m armed and ready for the Terrible Two’s (which started at about 13 months — see Here. Does this mean they will end early?)

In Defense of Food — because I don’t want my kid to be addicted to Golden Grahams like I was. Am. Like I am. (Step 1: Admit your addiction.)

The Best Food Writing of 2007 — because I just like food. Eating it, making it, and reading about it. My favorite writer about food is MFK Fisher, who wrote: “First we eat, then we do everything else.” I want to paint this quote on my kitchen wall.

What are you reading “just for fun?”

Sherman Saved The Day

Elayna Alexandra (Flodin), one of the student bloggers in my collection, was thoughtful enough to send me a copy of a children’s book that she illustrated called Sherman the Frog Meets the Snow Princess for my kid Mac. Mac has a thing for frogs, and boy howdy, now he has a thing for Sherman!

ShermanThis past week, Mac, who 18 months old, has been suffering from some large molars pushing through and a bit of a summer cold to boot: the perfect storm for toddler (and parental) misery. None of the ordinary tricks of our trade were working to cheer him up.

Balloons? NO!

Blueberries? NO!

Trash truck? TRASH TRUCK??? (he had to think about that one, but then …) NO!

Vacuum? VACUUM??? PLEASE! (Ok – that one worked, but only for about 10 minutes before he was screaming again.)

But then, into our lives came Sherman. Sherman is not only a brave frog, but also an adventurous frog, and a frog that thinks of others before himself. Sherman, gifted with his wish from the Snow Princess, helps other folks  in need. Sherman, in essence, saves the day.

While Mac doesn’t quite yet understand the nuances of the story (um, at all!), he does understand that there’s a frog, a princess, some trees, some shoes, a hat or two, and snow. Oh, and did I mention a frog? Because in Mac’s world, that’s really all that matters.

In mom’s world, however, Sherman totally saved the day for us, in more ways than he will ever know. Thank you Elayna for your generosity. You are truly gifted: not only are you a wonderful illustrator, but your Sherman character can also chill out a sick and cranky toddler, a feat that not even a trash truck or vacuum combined can perform!

We are both grateful.

Vanity Books

I recently wrote a post about a cool new website called Wordnik. I have some words and phrases that I would like to contribute to Wordnik because, well,  it might be neat if other people could find a use for them as well.  So I thought I would start my contributions here. The first phrase I’d like to work on is “Vanity Books.”

Vanity Books: These are books that you have on your bookshelf that you a) have never read, b) have no intent of reading, and c) look good as decorative items, or d) (more commonly) make you look good. I certainly did not make up this phrase, and in fact Wordnik has an entry for it already, but their entry needs some work so I think I might add a few of my ideas to it.

We have numerous vanity books in my house, many of them quite old, and I like to make fun of us for having them. I also like to look at them, but in fact, I rarely read them. My favorite vanity book is titled Famous Authors and the Best Literature of England and America.

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The book is old (copyright 1897), it’s 552 pages (the “best literature” in only 552 pages? Priceless!), and it has pretty pictures of authors and houses and fields and such (in color, no less). It contains two volumes  within the single book: Volume I is the best literature from England and Volume II is the best literature from America, of course. It also has quite possibly the world’s longest subtitle:

Containing

The lives of English and American authors in story form. Their portraits, their homes and their personal traits. How they worked and what they wrote.

Together with

Choice Selections From Their Writings

Embracing

The great poets of England and America, famous novelists, distinguished essayists and historians, our humorists, noted journalists and magazine contributors, statesmen in literature, noted women in literature, popular writers for young people, great orators and public lecturers.

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Thank god they got those “noted women” in there! Phew – that was close!

If you saw this book on my shelf and thumbed through it, wouldn’t you think I was extremely well-read (in the canon, anyway)?

I like this vanity book for a lot of reasons though, including the fact that it paints an interesting social-historical picture of what “great literature” was all about in the late 1800s.  Also, the book looks well-loved (meaning it’s falling apart) and it smells musty and tabacco-y, like it spent 75 years in a pipe-smoking, leather-patched professor’s office, probably as his vanity book, before being hauled off to an antique store when he died and his kids had no use for his museum-quality artifacts. I also like it because my mom and dad bought it for me as a college graduation present – the perfect present for an English major who likes books and used furniture.

When I took it out today to look at it again, I thought that if I actually were to read it someday, I could learn a few more words and phrases that I could use to feed my Wordnik habit, but I honestly do not have plans to read it anytime soon (I have too many other books waiting in line).  So for now, it will sit quietly but regally next to my second favorite vanity book, an 1884 edition of History of the United States in Words of One Syllable (I kid you not: this is the actual title). Indeed, apparently in 1884 one could learn the entire complex history of a country plagued by colonialism, war, disease, politics, racism, poverty, and sacrifice by reading words of only one syllable. Sounds like an antique version of Twitter, if you ask me.