Beginner's Mind

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The following post comes to us from Dr. David Ball, director of Ozarks Technical Community College's Carol Jones Writing Center in Springfield, Missouri. The CJWC was an early-adopter of virtual tutoring, and this post was originally written as part of Dr. Ball's regular communication and mentoring of his tutors. Though it was written in 2007, as Dr. Ball tells us, the philosophy still applies to most of what the CJWC does, and as virtual tutoring becomes more and more common, the concerns and the hopes here have remained relevant. 

If you'll go study the history of ideas, you'll find that most innovators were not the professionals, not the experts, but rather amateurs.  Bill Gates was a high school computer geek tinkerer who thought that everybody could own and use his own computer.  An IBM executive said in the early 1970's that there was a use for maybe three PC's in the entire world.  That's the voice of the experts.  Who was right?  The big three auto companies used to keep spies in the drag race chop shop underbelly of the folk hotrod cult of America looking for the next stylistic innovations for their designers (Wolfe, Kandy-Kolored).  There have been volumes written on paradigm shifts (Kuhn) and the psychology of innovation, and you'd do well to read some of them.

But what I'm shooting for here is what the Zen folk call beginner's mind (Suzuki).  The downside of being an expert is that you can be limited by what you know, or rather by what you think you know.  The sharpest knife in the drawer doesn't really know all that much, truth be told.  The experts "know" what can and cannot be done, and therefore, it is the amateurs, the visionaries, who do what has not been done before.  The borders of some of the maps in Columbus's time said "Here be dragons." Good thing he didn't believe the expert cartographers. A big part of what I do in my classrooms is to trick students (experts in their own incompetence) into believing they can do what they don't think they can do.  Over the years, I've tricked a fair number of people into succeeding in spite of themselves.  Moo-hoo-hahaha. 

Beginner's mind.  Those Zen cats got that much right.  The cosmos is full of more possibilities than we can ever tap.  If we can keep our vision.  But the minute we think we know what we're doing, we'll begin telling ourselves what can and cannot be done.  And we'll begin to lose our vision.

I tell the people I work for all the time that the most valuable serendipity of the Writing Center is the leadership training our tutors receive in the process of serving here.  I speak the truth.  And for some of you this online tutoring project will be the coup de grace of your training with me because you are going to set up what will be a major program from the ground floor up.  We can talk talk talk all day long, but there's no substitute for doing it.  The guy with a theory (the expert) will always be at the mercy of the guy with an experience (the amateur).  Beginner's mind.  We are unabashed amateurs.

What the hell am I talking about, you're asking yourself.  I'm trying to show you our greatest advantage in this project.  Numerous people who have set up some form of online tutoring have been driven by the technology, have served the machine.  We are going to drive the technology; the machine is going to serve us.  Here's why.  I don't know enough about the machine to know how it does what it does, what in fact  it can do, what it cannot do, or why.  I do know that the present technology in the world can be made to do just about anything we can imagine.  So our job is to imagine exactly what we want and then beg, buy, steal, or borrow the technology to do it that way.

Our mission is as follows: we will offer online minimalist one-on-one process-based tutoring in real time.  Period.  Effective immediately, we're going to begin figuring out how.  Details to follow.  You can't steer a parked car; so we're going to just put it in gear and drive.  The road will show us what to do.  The road is the mission, the thesis, the purpose.  Anything that doesn't fit under that heuristic will be eliminated, and we'll run down whatever the mission requires.  It's really just that simple Those of you who interiorize the lessons to be learned from building this program will possess a skill that will allow you to name your price because people with the leadership and vision required to do what you will have done are few and far between; and the people who run this planet will pay good money for their services.

Briefly stated, this is a bigger opportunity for you than for the people we will serve.  You don't get that many chances to participate in something like this from the ground floor up.  This is going to be a big deal.  Enjoy the challenge.  But keep your beginner's mind.  Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel, as Jim Morrison says.  Keep the main thing the main thing.  

D. Elton Ball (c. 2007)

Works Cited

Kuhn, Thomas.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  U Chicago P, 1970.

Suzuki, Shunryu.  Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.  Shambhala Library, 2007.

Wolfe, Tom.  The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965.