Saturday, January 15, 2011

Drawl Space & Digital Media

Maybe because I grew up for thirty years in the drawl space of rural West Texas, I’ve never been an early adopter. I don’t think it’s just about going slow, but it’s also about giving time for the multiples to accumulate. The toxic effects of one-right-way might’ve built up a strong resistance to speeding down novel (new-fangled) techie-things. On the other hand, going slow can also mean being stuck in the mud of tradition or fundamentalism. Neither speed nor slow is the answer.

After writing enough to get tenured, I even went backwards into the oral tradition where I felt storytelling was rooted and belonged. While digital media production looked interesting, digital and story were pretty much mutually exclusive. That was until I tried it out, reluctant at first, and then falling pretty darn fast.  But somehow, maybe it was instinctual, I knew that I needed a multiple-track format. Doing digital media with photostory and moviemaker didn’t have a good feel to it.

Also when I read or heard the experts saying you have to start with the written script, even with a storyboard, my body grimaced. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I wanted the full deck to play: text, moving image, still image, voice, music/sound. Searching the web and reviews, I found a program where I could see and work across multiple tracks with the creative energies sparking across them.  This allowed me to escape the claustrophobic sense of preimposed words that seems to be the legacy of print composition.

Steven Johnson’s Where Do Good Ideas Come From articulates explanations why digital media composing might need the multiple-track modality. Implications for teachers at all grade levels could be significant. The traditional working space or environment can “block or limit new combinations—by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges.”  The concept of the “adjacent possible” calls for an innovative environment that assembles the “spare parts.” 
We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings . . . but in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.” pp. 28-29.
“The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts.  The trick is to get more parts on the table.” p. 42

When I apply this to composing in digital media, I believe it means that certain platforms and instructional approaches risk limiting creativity, motivation, and quality.  Of course, we don’t want to overwhelm anyone for too long.  We do want work with platforms that allow dynamic engagement with the multiples.

After establishing the significance of the adjacent possible, Johnson moves ahead into another multiple which he terms “liquid network.” Innovations come not from the individual working alone but in the “swarm” that happens around the conference table.  I think of my frustration in a resource development retreat when I was summoned from my private composing so that we could report out to a working team.  Sharing my half-baked mumblings felt inadequate.  I also remember my realization that talking the process and the ensuing conversations provoked creativity and better composings. The liquid network, like the adjacent possible, challenges much of what I see in educational practice and particularly in individual assessment models and accountability pressures.

Steven Johnson has at least five more “patterns of innovation.” Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Beholding Tucson

Some recurrent but still strange cycle is happening. It comes when my personal reading swirls with the outer world blurring distinctions and there’s such a force that one wonders if it’s all coming apart.  The disaster at Tucson bubbles rage and despair from the hot core of the earth, and the Origin of Stories probes the epic Odysseus for clues as to how our evolution may bring cooperation out of the chaos or war and revenge.  Outside my window, the red-breasted woodpecker takes the water of life from the snow-capped posts.

The spiral of wisdom promises that peace advances when the individual attempts the marriage of opposites, that the center will hold, that compassion leads to solace.  So I soak in the winter’s harmony where the dusky oak leaves bring that austere beauty of sepia over the stark snow-white and the cold grey skies.  I listen to the passages for guidance in teaching about peace and justice.  Boyd writes:
Odysseus himself has a larger view than any other mortal within the Odyssey, a fact that reflects both his intelligence and his role as exemplar and upholder of his society’s values.  Whenever about to make an important move, he almost invariably stops and reflects: is this the right choice, practically and “morally,” in terms of the gods’ approval?  High-level inhibition within the prefrontal cortex is essential to the human capacity to live by moral codes subtler than other animals’ social emotions allow, even though these emotions also underpin human morality.  But people vary in their impulsivity and self-control, and poor self-inhibitors often find themselves eventually inhibited by others, as the suitors are at last by Odysseus: Weak motivational inhibition is thought to underlie the aggressive problems of conduct disorder . . . and psychopaths . . .” (p. 310)

Boyd organizes his text into two books: I. Evolution, Art, & Fiction.  II. From Zeus to Seuss.  His tracing of science’s story of the evolution of cognition and social psychology blends into the edgy interstice with narrative, play, and religion.  I choose to study this text because I believe it contributes to my work in the interweaving of oral and digital story.  When we compose, we trace pathways for searchers of meaning, purpose, relationship, living and dying.  In the epic, “Odysseus’ actions solve the problem of cooperation as well as possible, given the emotions and the institutions prevailing in his world; yet Homer lets us sense that the problem is not really solved—as, of course, it is still not solved for us” (p. 317).  The stories we tell, and those we allow others to tell, forge our fragile way.  When we model and when we respond to the narratives about us, this advance of our capacity and enactment of cooperative living must rise in prominence.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

To Compose Cooperation

With the purpose of making application for my course on Good Stories: Teaching Narratives for Peace and Justice, this is part 3 (see note at end) of my review of On the Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd (Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2009).  I’m focusing here on Chapter 13 “Fiction as Adaptation.”  Boyd continues his emphasis on the capacity of story to build cooperation, which aligns nicely with my highlighting peace. 

Boyd’s work complements my position with his scaffolding of fiction.  Genre fades in importance to me because I’m more interested in truth-value beyond the factual; for example, does the discourse increase capacity for peace, for justice?  Boyd privileges fiction; this chapter asserts that by its nature fiction “invites us to shift from our own perspective to that of another, and perhaps then another and another.”
In fiction the story lives the more everyone comes to life, the more each character seems to exist in his or her own right.  The twelfth-century Persian poet Nizami reports his hero’s feelings: “While each warrior thought of nothing but to kill the enemy and to defend himself, the poet was sharing the sufferings of both sides.” (p. 197; a reference to Layla and Majnun)

While Boyd seems to focus on the reading of fiction, I wonder how much more the possibility for enculturing cooperative ethics might come about in digital composing.  As we know (for example, from extensive research on dissonance), actual participation enhances change in behavior more than passive reception.  The act of composing a story (whether more or less factual) could advance empathy and pro-social behavior. 

Children’s play, as Boyd reviews in an earlier chapter, shows the power of constructed and enacted narrative in shaping their cognitive development and their relationships in community.  The work of Vivian Paley, which Boyd does not include, elaborates the most eloquent and convincing testimony of this that I have seen.  Boyd does note (again, in parentheses) the interesting feature that “For children, direction, narration, and enactment flow readily and naturally into one another. So long as the play-story continues, consistency of medium or mode does not matter” (p. 177). 

I see in Paley’s accounts the huge significance played by a master teacher, Paley, in holding these play-stories in her consciousness and heart so that the children can move forward into the amazing demonstrations of compassionate behavior.  For example, Wally’s Story portrays how a child who had been the class bully before coming into Paley’s classroom acted to reconcile hostility among other children.  Wally acts in their constructions of story (in the play corner and in the story circle by directing and by acting and by attending) to bring the excluded into community.  Peace making with narrative gains possibility when this enactment of perspective-taking works its magic unhindered by the distractions by genre distinctions and academic analysis.

*Note:  Part 1, Making Good Stories, explores the supportive role of storytelling and stories to the making of consciousness and civilization.  Part 2 concerned Boyd’s focus on the evolution of art, particularly on the losing of balance and recovery, which can also be interpreted as “play.” 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Balance & Play in Making Good Stories

Continuing in the reading of Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, part 2 concerns the evolution of art.  I think this is an important frame for our engagement with digital media.  Boyd postulates two principal functions for art: 1) “stimulus and training for a flexible mind, as play does for the body and physical behavior,” and 2) “a social and individual system for engendering creativity, for producing options not confined by the here and now or the immediate and given” (pp. 86-87).  He elaborates on the first: “The high concentration of pattern that art delivers repeatedly engage and activate individual brains and over time alter their wiring to modify key human perceptual, cognitive, and expressive systems, especially in terms of sight, hearing, movement, and social cognition.”  

This grounding in cognitive development arms those of us who want to enrich schooling with story, with digital media, with art, and with play.  Play entered as a side note in the first function (did you notice?), but it moves more and more center stage as Boyd continues: “The more often and the more exuberantly animals play, the more they hone skills, widen repertoires, and sharpen sensitivities” (p. 92).  On the next page, he elaborates with the way play sometimes involves losing balance and recovering.  In parentheses, he notes “(Aptly, the name of the Japanese kabuki theater derives from the obsolete verb kabuku, ‘to lose one’s balance,’ ‘to be playful.’)”

As my interest in gnostic knowing increases, I’ve learned to be alert to the parenthetical.  It’s like learning to walk in the woods with “soft” eyes, aware of peripheral vision.  I’m surprised I haven’t explored the vital connection between play and balance.  Of course, it links to the childhood thrill of swinging and see-sawing to the limit, to the challenge of the ropes course, and to my current near-obsession: riding dressage.  Bringing powerful forces to balance with the most subtle cues, the lightest touch, and the greatest harmony: it doesn’t get much better than that. 

Going further then, how does this inform our work/play with digital media and the making of good stories?  Of course, we know that conflict and resolution are key constituents of narrative.  Obviously, that goes for peace-making also, but I don’t recall seeing the loss of balance and recovery integrated into writing about digital media production or criticism. 

Just as it is in dressage, I suspect this art is in the feel, not in conscious analysis.  The sense of balance probably comes in the play and certainly in the timing.  For example, how long does the designer hold a slide and when cue the change of pace.  This is so delicately delicious in riding; why not in digital media production?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Making Good Stories

In twenty days,  I’ll be innovating a course at the University of Maryland called Good Stories: Teaching Narratives for Peace & Justice, perhaps the culmination of my forty-odd years as a professional educator.  Encouraged by my administrators to develop the course as an option in the renovation of gen ed requirements, for motives that I read as altruistic and other, I opted into this redesign for a similar complex of reasons.  One strong drive comes from the vitality that I feel in the dynamic engagement of story, particularly as its nature flexes into emergent forms of digital media.  I want to chart my process by writing in this forum and hope to be joined by friends who may contribute reflections or simply provide silent witness.

About twenty years ago, I was captivated by an oral storyteller, Gioia Timpanelli, in the company of Robert Bly, Coleman Barks, and a host of others, in a mytho-poetic camp doing what some call performance of text, or the living text.  The translation of cultural treasure stored in mythic tales into contemporary meaning shot through me with the affirmation of gnosis or sacred truth.  The work of civilization and consciousness, to me, means the task of constructing social truth, which involves peace, justice, freedom, and love, of course.  This work in the 21st century must engage social and digital media.  The course on Good Stories, then, translates narrative across the terrain of oral, print, and digital media; and the process of translating is key.

As I prepare for this adventure, I’m very aware that the academic subculture includes a band of cut-throats whose status depends on ravaging what can be sacked as non-rigorous, juvenile, or the like.  Certainly the word story looks like easy prey.  Thus on alert for bolstering my defense system, my eyes glimmered at the title and description of a book: On the Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd (Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2009).  The reviews promised: “This is an insightful, erudite, and thoroughly original work. Aside from illuminating the human love of fiction, it proves that consilience between the humanities and sciences can enrich both fields of knowledge,” (Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor).  “Boyd covers an astonishing range of evolutionary concepts, human evolution, cognitive and developmental psychology, human ethology, anthropology, game theory and related topics. Having done research in several of these areas, I can attest that he has selected judiciously and described the science remarkably accurately and clearly,” (Gordon Burghardt, University of Tennessee).

Now about a fifth of the way into Boyd’s 500 pages, some important applications to the course are churning.  Boyd sets out early to dismantle false dichotomies that limit the advance of civilization and the continuing place of story, such as nature versus nurture; a complex interplay among such forces better aligns with evolutionary psychology and the hope for peace.  His treatment of social intelligence, and particularly the evolution of cooperation (Chapter 4), portrays this poignantly:  The
greatest pressures for advanced intelligence arise from the need to track the identities, status, powers, and intentions of conspecifics [friends] and to respond to them to best advantage. . . cooperate . . .  subtly enough to earn resources obtainable only together. . . compete . . . to maximize their share of socially earned resources without risking prospects for future cooperation . . . [This is a] complex task in species with changeable hierarchies and fluid alliances.” (p. 45). 
Wow!  Doesn’t this undergird the need for powerful stories and storytellers and the engagement in storytelling in order to bring forward cooperation necessary for peace and justice!

The evolutionary advance of our being, with particular focus on the brain’s activity, deals with “subtle interactions at the variant end of the information continuum,” which I interpret as times when we have a non-routine problem that needs a more novel response.  In such times, Boyd says an active window on the mind’s computer screen gets bumped up into consciousness.
Deliberate attention amplifies information relevant to the problem and inhibits the irrelevant.  In the severely limited space of working memory, we process information not unconsciously or implicitly, but consciously or “explicitly,” and not in parallel but in series through representations—perceptions, memories, projections—in one of our central executive’s slave systems, via images (in our mind’s eye), words (in our mind’s ear), or episodic memories. (pp. 47-48)
My association leaps to what happens when I’m working in digital media with the frame by frame mixing of image, sound, and text.  All of these connect with memories and potentially lead toward creative responses to stuck situations.

Boyd confirms my experience that we have a compulsion for stories.  He validates the importance and difficulty of cooperation, which I call peace-making.
. . . increased cooperation, many researchers now believe, may also be the key to the runaway growth of human intelligence.  Through greater motivation to share emotions, attention, intentions, and information, we have learned to understand other perspectives and to detach thought from the immediate; we have developed language and what we could call human ultraculture. (p. 53)

Cooperation depends on maturity, not naïveté.  Civilization advances partially through the detection and treatment of cheaters.  Boyd states that our stories teach us how to do that.  My engagement in this text meshes forward into my appreciation and high value for integrity.  The compelling story consists in the truth of the word and speaker infused inseparably.  Society urgently depends on such storytellers/leaders as well as citizens with story savvy who discern lies and cheaters.  Discernment depends on purification.