Bart Kosko in Fuzzy Thinking says, if we are going to talk about machines that can learn, we have to ask what "learning" is. He says learning is when someone or some thing changes its behavior based upon previous experience. "To learn is to change. And to change is to learn. You can learn well or badly. But you cannot learn without changing or change without learning" (205).
We are educators, and as such everything we do involves, or should involve, learning. So. What can we do, using Kosko's definition, to create experiences that cause students to change their behavior, presumably to more effective behaviors?
We consider ourselves to be a learning organization, trying to change our own behaviors based upon previous experience to be more effective. And the day we stop trying to do that, we are finished. So. Kudos.
Here is a piece of writing center slang I learned at a conference: "No fracking." FRACK in our slang is an acronym for "formulaic rules and creativity killers." WE have to be creative. Yes, we have to have outcomes and assess them. I have target outcomes for every class meeting, every training session, every institutional meeting. But if I try to eliminate any conceivable surprise in the name of assuring some certain outcome that no one could ever by any method guarantee, I may well kill the joy, creativity, and possibility of a surprise that would provide an experience that could help my student modify his behavior in a beneficial way. I don't mind having a little bit of uncertainty. I don't mind rolling the dice at the risk of botching an outcome every now and then.
With a little bit of creativity, I can make a learning experience out of anything. Anything. Our writing center's outside author has caused a good deal of vexation in the shop this summer. [Note: the person mentioned here was a retired person, not enrolled at the college who had brought her work to the center for consulting. Our college prides itself on being a community college, and over the years we have worked with many people whose only tie to the college was the center. Unfortunately, this writer had written an thousand-page "expose," a virulently racist conspiracy theory.] We have had dozens (or hundreds) of vexatious people over the years. We are a better program, and our tutors, past and present, are better educated now because of them. Our writing center is a learning organization, and we learn from everything that happens. By continuing to work with her, after we considered 86-ing that arrangement, our tutors have gained what they themselves have told me was a valuable learning experience in participating in an open, respectful, democratic discussion with a fellow citizen holding views that we consider in many ways silly and offensive. In the future they will be better prepared to function as good citizens in the marketplace of ideas because of experiencing her. But I am afraid I can't offer you a rubric or any quant data to prove it. You will just have to take my word for it--and the word of our staff.
My pantheon of great teachers includes Epictetus, Socrates, Jesus, and Buddha. What do they have in common? 1. They have all been gone for at least 2,000 years. 2. Everybody still knows their names and teachings. 3. None of them ever wrote anything. 4. None of them ever charged tuition. 5. None of them ever took roll in class. 6. None of them ever made anybody come to class--or do anything else for that matter. 7. None of them ever gave grades or diplomas. 8. None of them ever bothered providing any sort of assessment data to validate their methods. Take it or leave it. They believed what they said and didn't feel any need to prove it or make anybody else believe it. Incidentally, two of them were terminated by their administration specifically on the charge that they were perverting the minds of their students.
And yet, as I said, everybody knows their teachings based purely upon what their students did and what they told us about their beloved teachers. Those are great teachers. My heroes. They were who they were and did what they did. They inspired students to become something better, based upon the experiences they provided those students. No, we can't all be Epictetus or Jesus or Socrates or Buddha. But we can be open to the possibility of surprise and keep learning in our own lives and keep a fire in our own bellies that will inspire our students. I think you know I actually believe what I am saying here, and I am aware that some consider me silly because of it. I am fine with that. I have had too many English teachers tell me they learned what they wanted to be when they took my class to waste any psychic energy worrying that some folks think I am not practical or whatever.
My daddy said you can tell a woodcutter by his chip pile. I say you can tell a teacher by his (or her, or her) students. That's why I approve of the school's follow up surveys of past students to see how they are doing and how they believe their time with us influenced it.
As I said, the devil is in the details, and I don't have any alchemical formula to offer, but if we want to better serve the public, we have to be a non-stop learning organization, all day long every day, and if we are not inspired ourselves, we are not going to inspire anybody else. If we mechanize our procedures to the point that we damage our own joy and creativity, we will do damage to our mission in the long term and in the short term, and we will do a disservice to the students who lay their money down to spend time with us.
How you think is more important than what you know. The really far out fuzzy thinkers--the Hawkings and Koskos and Gleicks--of the world have begun to figure out that the binary Aristotelean template that the industrialized world has employed for the past 400 some-odd years has taken us about as far as we can go without burning down the house. Aristotelian binary thinking is either/or, A or B. This or that, up or down, hot or cold, true or false, us or them, good or bad, pass or fail (Kosko)....You can add a thousand more. It is a recipe for conflict, if not outright war.
I am not a Buddhist; so don't go gunning for me as some sort of Zen missionary. But his model might be of use in 2018 and moving forward. Zen is A AND B (Kosko). You have all seen that yin/yang symbol. Look at it closely. The yin and yang are swirled together, and each has the eye of the other in its center. Creativity happens when you hold two conflicting ideas in mind at the same time without insisting that one dominate the other. Many of the non-industrialized societies have embraced this view for millennia. We are not talking voodoo here. We are talking hard science. Bart Kosko gives a splendid explanation of the principle in his book Fuzzy Thinking, which I highly recommend. He was talking about this stuff 25 years ago and being laughed out of the universities and Silicon Valley for it. Now it drives the smart machines and Artificial Intelligence technology that is beginning to dominate the world markets and will change your lives in ways we cannot yet imagine.
So. Composition at the Edge of Chaos. If I might quote Hunter S. Thompson, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." Or as A-Mo's pal Little Finger says, "Chaos is a ladder." Things will get crazy in "the last best place" (Davis), sooner or later. Anybody who has been with us any length of time knows this. Don't fear it. Embrace it. Use it as a catalyst for creativity. The best science we have right now says that is where creativity comes from. That's why our absolute greatest artists and writers and musicians and actors and scientists and inventors have often been a little crazy—or a lot. I am not saying to go psycho next week and get us all fired. I am just saying to stay cool and look for the opportunities to learn and have fun with the crazy things that are coming. Here's to a great semester. Stay loose. See you upriver.
D. Elton Ball (August 2017).
Davis, Kevin. "The Writing Center as Last Best Place: Six Easy Pieces on Montana, Bears, Love, and Writing Centers." The Writing Center Journal, vol. 26, no. 2, 2006, pp. 22-30.
Kosko, Bart. Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic. Hyperion, 1993.
Thompson, Hunter S. "Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl." Rolling Stone no. 155, 28 February 1974. Rpt. in Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time, Hunter S. Thompson, Summit Books, 1979.
D. Elton Ball presently serves as Director of the Carol Jones Writing Center, which he helped found at Ozarks Technical Community College in August 2000. Before that he had once served as Assistant Director at the Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) Writing Center from 1988-1990, which he also helped set up originally. His interest in theory is entirely driven by whatever value it can bring to actual praxis. As for style, gonzo is the word.