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I Don't Know

June 7, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I taught high school fresh out of college. I was so young that people often thought I was a student (which is perhaps also why I was so nervous about being the one in front). Suddenly, after years of watching someone else do all the lecturing, I was in charge of a classroom. To say I was intimidated is putting it lightly. In fact, I felt many emotions – excitement, anxiety, challenge, fear, etc. Up to that point, my educational model consisted of listening to lectures and doing group projects. I understand the reasons for (and benefits of) a lecture-style classroom, however, having been with Harrison Middleton University for awhile now, I also recognize its limitations.

My wonderful job enables me to discuss a wide variety of literature in small groups. Furthermore, technology allows us to do this with people around the world. No longer am I a lecturer at the front of a classroom. This experience has opened my eyes to some of my own flaws during my high school teaching experience. While I incorporated drama as often as possible into the high school curriculum, I did not utilize discussion nearly enough.

Leading discussions can be extremely intimidating for a number of reasons. First, and most obvious, though the leader directs the flow, there is no ability to control all of the comments. Sometimes conversations enter a place that is off-topic or offensive, and the leader must reign those in. Sometimes conversations seem flat, boring, uninspired, or lacking in participation. Sometimes the students have not adequately read the material, and the leader must carry the conversation or the group must read passages out loud together and discuss it that way.

Also, the leader must do a lot of prep work ahead of time. First, the leader must prepare questions ahead of time and know the reading quite thoroughly. Second, the leader must lay down ground rules from the beginning, such as focusing all comments on the relevant text. Third, the leader must feel empowered to cut someone short, ask that the conversation return to the focus work. Typically the leader does not participate in the discussion, but often people will ask questions that have no answer. The leader, therefore, must feel comfortable with the limits of their knowledge.

As a high school teacher, I did not have any of these resources yet. I always felt ashamed when I did not know the answer immediately. Now, however, I find that saying “I don’t know” is exciting. Now I see it as an opportunity to discover something, even if it is just a factual review of the text. Personally, I get excited when we reach a spot where I do not know something because it is an opportunity to learn.

During a conversation in which I am the leader, I like to prepare clusters of questions. I often find themes, and try to group questions around that theme. Then, if a participant wanders from one theme into another, I can ask a followup question about it. Also, I like to leave a section to the side of my notes for what I call “I don’t know” questions, or, in other words, things I want to look up later on my own. Since I lead a lot of works about topics that are unfamiliar to me, sometimes I have a lot of “I don’t know” questions. And even when I lead discussions about something very familiar – say Shakespeare – I still come up with a ton of questions, which is so exciting!

Because I love to learn, I now realize that “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable response in any discussion. Not only have I fulfilled the old adage that “the more you learn, the less you know,” but I also get energized from the list of “I don’t know” questions down the side of my discussion notes.

To see this method in action, join us for the July Quarterly Discussion on either July 11 or 13. We will read a selection from Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind. Email asimon@hmu.edu for more information or to register.

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Snap Chatting

March 3, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Snapchat offers a fast, easy, image-driven conversation over any smartphone. This twitter-like experience allows you to add a photo, granting new dimensions to the textual content of your words. I find this mix really interesting from the standpoint of communication studies. What are the potential repercussions of a chat space like Snapchat? What type of communication is it intended for and are the users aware of different styles of communication?

For those of you unfamiliar with Snapchat, it is a phone app that allows you to snap a quick photo, and send both photo and text to a friend or group of friends. The message is entirely temporal and is expected to disappear after it has been read. The company that owns Snapchat (Snap Inc.) says, “Our products empower people to express themselves, live in the moment, learn about the world, and have fun together”. sends a message that purportedly dissolves, then it is clearly not intended for use in business meetings or heart-to-hearts. They also explicitly state that it is intended for fun. This bridging of mediums does open new potentials. But it also opens up new questions.

From its beginnings, teens have been quick to capitalize on this message board for silly notes, procrastination device and also mini-journaling. One can include a saved image in the text, or you can take a new image, giving prominence to a local eatery, travel destination, artwork or whatever you're doing right now. (I have yet to see someone vacuuming, but maybe I haven't looked hard enough). It seems obvious to me that this type of dialogue should be saved for use among your relatively close and personal friends and family. However, this is not clear to all of the users. Unfortunately, there are those who have sent messages only to have the message backfire in some way. This brings up questions of legality and audience.

Since a high percentage of Snapchat users are young, it is important that they be armed with information about communication styles and technological literacy. Despite the best intentions of Snap Inc., it is not difficult to save an image from Snapchat. Also, in real life, in real face-to-face conversation, we are often painfully aware of audience. Reactions are immediate and can be embarrassing, thrilling, hilarious, frustrating or painful. Facial features and bodily gestures grant a large amount of communication in face-to-face conversation, none of which is present in a Snapchat, obviously. Also, jokes (one of the most common forms of communication in this quickchat session) can be relatively difficult to read without the physical presence of the speaker. For example, sarcasm can be wholly missed without enough content. And finally, Snapchat is really less about chatting than about an instantaneous impression, message or emotion. Though you can respond and have some “conversation” among a series, it is not intended for lengthy discussion.

The company name clearly indicates this by the inclusion of “snap” which refers not just to snapping a photo, but also to the quick and short movement of the conversation. It should also be noted that snap can have a somewhat negative connotation in terms of conversation. Check out the following meanings supplied by Merriam-Webster;s definition of “snap”:

- to utter sharp biting words : bark out irritable or peevish retorts

- to give way suddenly under emotional stress or strain

- to undergo a sudden and rapid change (as from one condition to another)

- to break suddenly : break short or in two

In the first example, a person who utters “sharp, biting words” is not in the mindframe for conversation. I wonder, does the image enhance our ability to open our mind and understand the other person's viewpoint or words? Or does the image grab more attention than the text of a particular Snapchat thus making the words more inaccessible or devalued? Either way, a sharp tone indicates the opposite of conversation. The next three examples also offer questions about the temporality of such a medium. Snap indicates sudden and rapid, which is a style of communication, but not of conversation.

While Snap Inc. focuses on the fun aspects of their technology, users rarely restrict themselves in playing with new technologies. In fact, creativity is often encouraged, and I see no reason why experimentation should not be encouraged. I do wonder, though, how Snapchat will change (if at all) conversation styles? Or, more clearly stated, I wonder if Snapchat will more clearly elucidate our various ways of conversing. More importantly, I wonder what will happen if dissolving conversation is taken as a foundation or replacement of face-to-face discussion?

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What Constitutes Conversation

January 27, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

“What is the ultimate goal of conversation? It is to produce a meeting of minds.” - Mortimer J. Adler

Not all conversation is legitimate, in the terms of Mortimer Adler, founder of the Great Books Foundation. In this 45 minute presentation, he discusses different types of conversation and focuses on the types of conversation that help us become better people. He gently admonishes people who have no skills in listening, though he claims it is more a fault of our educational style, than of any individual fault. In claiming that an open mind and the ability to listen is an essential piece of every conversation, he also shows how every human already has the potential to engage in meaningful conversation. Adler defines conversation as mind to mind discussion. This is especially profound to me: two minds actually meeting excites me. In fact, without two open minds, there is no discussion at all, but rather two sides of a story passing along parallel lines, without intersect.

There is much proof to back up Adler's comment that listening is a most difficult skill for humans. We study in lectures, learn to speak, write and read, but are rarely taught how to listen in a way that requires thoughtful response. Schools devote a lot of time to writing skills. Yet, as compared to speaking or reading, we use writing the least on average. And unlike reading and writing, Adler notes that listening flows only in one direction. We cannot turn a page back while listening to a discussion. Again, this strikes me as important, particularly in an age of Google and Siri in which we think information always exists at our fingertips. To listen, one must be present and actively engaged. Arguments are often subtle, especially philosophical arguments, which require much depth and concentration. It makes sense that we begin to understand philosophical arguments from texts. I also believe that it is not so terrible to devote much of our time to reading and writing. In fact, these skills are necessary precursors to Adler's ideal conversation. Before engaging in a lively debate, it is best to know a little bit about your subject. Therefore, one will be able to understand difficult terminology – or at least ask for critical clarification – and also address the main issue of the conversation. The skills learned in reading and note-taking enable us to listen in a sense. Yet, still, reading enables the turning of pages, which is not possible in conversation.

Many people believe that reading is passive, that one can sit down and relax with a book. Certainly, there are books that offer relaxation, but today's post is intended more towards ideas that challenge us. This type of reading is not at all passive. Instead, it activates the mind by connecting personal experience to the book's experience. Better yet, reading melds into communal action. We begin with author to student discussion, in which the student writes questions and comments in the margins of a text. Then, expanding these comments into a group discussion is not such a big leap. Fully understanding a difficult book may require a meeting of minds to discuss the content. Otherwise, the action of reading takes place within the same self that judges the material using the same voice and the same metrics as the only gauge of a book's quality. It is only when we step outside of our own boundaries that we actually come to find new information. It is true that one can learn much from simply reading. But one can learn much more, in a shorter time, if one applies dialogue to the difficult reading.

Mind to mind discussions – either instructive or persuasive – can only exist between two open minds. In other words, we must attempt to, even if only for a moment, silence our own argument. The creation of an argument comes only through dedicated learning and an open mind. If we are to advance our understanding of an issue, it must be through an open mind. We often approach literature this way, so why not live conversation? Once a thought is spoken, it passes. If no one challenges that thought, then it stands. Likewise, if no one agrees with the thought, then it stands alone.

I encourage you to listen to Adler's lecture on how to begin a discussion. Next, put your thoughts into action and try out a discussion. Harrison Middleton University follows this Socratic method in the one-to-one discussions with students, in which the student engages with a text, but also shares their questions. These fruitful discussions offer the best educational model that I have ever experienced. From there, jump into a small group discussion, which expands the conversation to a variety of opinions. A meeting of minds creates a kind of verbal map of how the mind works and how a piece of literature affects us all.

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