Archive for the ‘research’ Category


You Cannot Truly Outline a Paper Until You Know What You Want to Say and You Cannot Truly Know What You Want to Say It Until You Have Actually Said It

February 8, 2010

I have discovered that you cannot start a book with intention, calculation. You start writing before you know what you want to write or what you are doing.
• E.L. Doctorow

I have made a bold statement with my title and now I must explain it. I shall proceed so that you will understand that I do not believe that no thought precedes writing. Instead, I am trying to be honest about the messy writing processes I use. I’ve read about—and talked to—enough other writers to know that many of them are not as organized as you might imagine. Perhaps you will find comfort in my words as you find your own writer’s ways.

There is much advice about outlining provided in books and online forums: “Each heading and subheading should preserve parallel structure.” “All the information contained in heading 1 should have the same significance as the information contained in heading 2.” “The information in the headings should be more general while the information in the subheadings should be more specific.” (Thanks to where you can find much more if your mind works this way. Honestly, I’m not writing this for you. I applaud you. I congratulate you. There are days when I wish I was—or is it were—you. I must look that up as I can never recall which word is correct in which context.)

I cannot write this kind of well-organized outline until I have finished writing. I am paralyzed by it. Is this heading information, I ask myself, or does it belong in a subheading? What do I do when a section doesn’t have enough subheadings yet? Do I use a capital letter or a Roman numeral here? What comes next? I used to ponder these imponderables endlessly, procrastinating instead of writing. Then I went to work in a job that required writing on a deadline.

There’s no time to craft careful outlines when a deadline is looming and a column or article is due. You have to start writing something, no matter how imperfect. In those pre-computer days, I wrote by hand first so that I could see where changes needed to be made. I still write by hand to capture thoughts and notes on the fly that might be useful for a paper or a project, filing them appropriately until they’re needed.

If you’re a typical student, you usually won’t have the luxury of working on one project at a time. You’re juggling multiple papers and/or projects. Devising a system to capture your ongoing thoughts on each is useful. I use 3×5 cards in my pocket since they’re easy to organize when I’m ready to start. What I have before I begin writing or designing a presentation is not an outline. It’s all those notes I’ve made. Lots of them. My thoughts need to ripen before I pluck them. I try to organize the notes before I start, but I don’t worry if I can’t do it perfectly.

How different the world of writing is now that we’re using computers and can cut and paste and delete and add and create new files for new versions and hopscotch around our writing at will. Now my beginnings are just that. I get started writing. Sometimes what I write first ends up at the end. Sometimes in the middle. Sometimes it gets thrown out as witty and clever and completely inappropriate for the purposes of whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish.

If I’m working on something really challenging, sometimes I write everything out of my head and onto the screen, print it, and literally cut and paste, moving paragraphs or ideas around until they make sense since I can’t see the whole paper at once on-screen. If you do this, number your paragraphs before you start messing around with them. If I know I’m going to employ this technique, I number them on-screen before I print. It facilitates the electronic cut-and-paste that follows.

Often I realize that what I’ve written has huge gaps that need additional information. This is why I believe you should start drafting materials early so there’s still time to fill the gaps in your thinking. I suspect that the rigid outline formats students are sometimes still taught are relics of the days of typewriters when you needed to be pretty sure where you were going before you began writing. Otherwise, you faced the painful prospect of redoing major chunks of your work. I know. I got my undergraduate degree as an English major using a typewriter. No fun.

I once taught high school. I remember the day when the senior English teachers were gathered in the auditorium with all of the seniors to introduce the dreaded Senior Project. The department chair asked someone to describe outlining as it was detailed in the Senior Project Handbook. We looked at one another and, as the pause lengthened, began one by one to confess that we didn’t use those neatly-organized techniques and didn’t want to talk about them. Instead, like a meeting of former substance abusers confessing our sins, we stood up one by one and revealed our shameful writing process secrets. It was one of the best and most honest moments of my high school teaching collaboration.

What are your actual, true, useful writing processes?

I take dictation from that place within my mind that knows what to say. I think most good writers do. There’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration. The idea of “diagramming” an essay in advance, as we are taught in school, may be useful to students, but is foolishness for any practicing writer. The Muse visits during the process of creation, not before.
• Roger Ebert


There Is Then Creative Reading as Well as Creative Writing *

February 6, 2010

Journaling sounds so simple, doesn’t it. Get onto the computer, buy a diary or notebook of some kind and just start writing, right? Write! It sounds easy, but isn’t. What to write about and why bother? Without purpose, enthusiasm wanes quickly. There’s only so much you can say about what you had for supper (although there are entire books devoted to just such records) or the difficulty of finding good teevee timewastery to occupy your extra hours while you send out countless job queries (although other job seekers would likely commiserate). Even something as simple as keeping a daily photographic record of your socks can get lost in the push of daily living.

There are many kinds of purposeful journals that people keep. One kind of journal I’ve found meaningful is the commonplace book, another kind of autobibliographic reflection. In a commonplace book, you record passages from books that have particular meaning for you. You may respond to them or you may just record things in order to “save” them. This personal-choice recording is different from the kinds of reading logs you may have kept for school since the passages can be from books you are reading for pleasure or from websites or magazines or signs you see or—well, whatever. It may also include quotations or lines of poetry or other things you find pleasing. Be sure to note page numbers and bibliographic information in case you want to reference something from your collection later.

Lines from poems sometimes inspire my art and poetry, and quotations often spur me to think beyond the words on the page and into creative possibilities. For example, at the top of the page I’m word processing right now is a quotation from Kim Hubbard I want to use with The Amuseum of Un-Natural History: “Come good times or bad, there is always a market for things nobody needs.” Visit any thrift store and you’ll be visually bombarded by racks and shelves of things nobody needed that are now for sale to others who don’t need them either but want them anyway. This is another of the many things that fascinate me since I am often a victim of the I-don’t-need-it-but-I-really-really-really-want-it sydrome. Yes. I am the woman who just paid $2.69 for a Bakelite adding machine that is frightfully heavy and pretty much useless but incredibly cool looking. But once again, I digress.

Commonplace books have a long history, dating back to times when books were not as easily available and when people might wish to have a record of wisdom on particular topics of interest to them. I will not bore you with these details. Suffice it to say that you could begin now to collect information that interests you from your reading, or from your life if you aren’t doing much reading. You could keep these snippets of interesting information in a journal of some kind, even cutting and gluing in things that you find amusing—or not. Commonplace books figure prominently in Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events and thus can also be used to record and ruminate on the disasters that befall you and the comfort provided by the words of others.

Hard Times (1853) is my favorite of Charles Dickens’ books, and on December 11, 2002, I copied this quotation from the book in my commonplace book. Mr. Gradgrind says, “Louisa, never wonder.” The book goes on to say, “Herein lay the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections. Never wonder. By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder” (p. 36).

As an educator, I often wonder why school does not do more to engage students’ interests since interest-building activities would nurture skills useful in life after school. Inquisitiveness—or curiosity—was linked to innovative thinking in a six-year study of 3,000 creative executives. The study found five discovery skills that these creative people possessed: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking (“How Do Innovators Think?” Bronwyn Fryer, Sept., 28, 2009, Harvard Business Review). In this article, Jeff Dyer, one of the researchers, explains why people don’t think inquisitively, saying that “the problem is that even the most creative people are often careful about asking questions for fear of looking stupid, or because they know the organization won’t value it.” This too is in my commonplace book.

Of course, if you’re in school, you can prepare for class by reading your textbooks and related materials, recording references and reflections in a course-related commonplace book. Imagine an instructor’s delight should you do so.

Consider beginning a commonplace book to capture things that interest you.

All genuine learning is active, not passive. It involves the use of the mind, not just the memory. It is a process of discovery, in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher.
• Mortimer J. Adler,
The Padeia Proposal

* Thanks to Ralph Waldo Emerson for the title quotation: “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.”


Who Are You Anyway? Are You Your Resume? *

January 29, 2010

Describing your self in understandable terms–your life-work, your image of yourself, your priorities, what you would like people to think you do, what you do, and what you would like to do next–is a telling slice of reality and aspiration. We should all have a personal curriculum vitae or resume that attempts to describe who we really are and not who we are trying to pretend to be.
• Richard Saul Wurman

I went back to school after working twenty years in the private sector, finished a bachelor’s degree in two and a half years, taught high school and completed a master’s degree at night, worked at a community college, and earned my doctorate while working full time as a teacher educator. I have lots of experience that can be found on my vita (short for curriculum vitae or CV—see for a clear description of the difference between resume and CV), but these things that are found on my vita are not all that I am, nor do they represent even a fraction of what I have been, or what I long to become. I have been many women, and I expect to be many more, all of them linked to my dreams for my life.

I created a list of some of the other things I’ve done in my life as an exercise in uncovering what is important to me that doesn’t necessarily appear in more formal assessments of my work. These things also help me understand my life’s throughlines and remind me of things I need to remember if I hope to live with authenticity.

My Vita, Mi Vida • The Other Woman
An Alternative Vita

by Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn (Community College Moment, 2005)

Who am I anyway? Am I my resume?
A Chorus Line, lyrics by Edward Kleban

I have made doll clothes out of crepe paper,
carefully sewing, gathering, ruffling edges.
I have colored hundreds of zinnias in shades of aqua and magenta,
row upon row of carefully outlined petals.
I have designed my own line of clothing for Lucille Ball paper dolls,
crayoning her coordinating hats and shoes and purses on notebook paper.
I have dressed in outfits beautiful to me
and never cared what any other person thought.
I have decorated rooms from coast to coast with cheap treasures
scavenged from unexpected places.
Making home wherever I have been.
I have sequined and bedazzled.
Sewn costumes for many Halloweens.
I have danced and tapped and twirled and done the splits
and backbends off of coffeetables.
And played the piano.
Endless scales and Mozart.
I have sung for congregations and for crowds.
Made a lot of joyful noise.
I have acted. Danced some more. And sung again.
And hung pictures and baskets. Spackled holes.
Listened. Cared.
Worked with stained glass. Learned to make linoleum prints.
Made curtains. Made a home. And another. And another.
I have baked a thousand cookies and then a thousand more.
Pink frosted bunnies with cinnamon candy eyes.
Chocolate chip with walnuts.
Oatmeal with raisins.
Shapes and colors and batches of fudge and
Bundt cakes decorated like Christmas wreaths.
I’ve folded origami animals and flowers and tried to learn to knit.
I’ve wrapped so many presents I couldn’t start to count. Cleverly.
And I’ve done macrame and crewel, embroidered pillowcases and
made dishtowels out of flour sacks.
I’ve created clothing and picnics and parties with a theme.
I’ve costumed shows.
I have taken this and transformed it into that.
Trash into treasure.
Stuff into home.
Life gives. I take. I make.
I have decorated boards with pine cones.
Fringed the edges of burlap cushions.
Designed the table for those very special dinners
with placemats cut and pasted from a rainbow.
I have carved pumpkins.
Led the celebration at years and years of holidays.
Baked a cake shaped like a deer head, antlers made from Tootsie Rolls,
going to five stores before I found the red jawbreaker for his nose.
I have filled pillowcases with newspaper-wrapped gifts.
Used layaway.
I’ve made and I’ve made do. Happily.
Three meals from one chicken.
A half pound of ground beef to feed four–or more.
Taking hints from Heloise, I’ve scrounged and scrimped
and cut the corners off of life.
I have crocheted and hemmed and hah-ed.
I’ve been the ghost of Christmas past.
I’ve dressed in kimonos.
Worn other people’s shoes.
Safety-pinned my bra strap.
Collected books and alligators and shiny brooches sparkling with cold rhinestone fire.
I’ve made spaghetti and biscotti and real cream-filled eclairs.
I’ve baked a lot of apple pies. Cherry too.
I’ve made cinnamon rolls without a mix.
Popped corn in the same pan since 1965.
Patchworked a wedding dress from a thousand gingham and calico pieces.
I’ve used new sheets for festive tablecloths, then slept on them until
they turned to rags. Then used the rags.
I’ve imagined that the dark and empty spaces under the lilac bush
were home, a kingdom peopled by tiny beings
from some other more enchanted life.
I’ve whirled and wished the wind would blow me any place but here.
Made lemonade and sold it for a nickel.
Ice pops from grape Koolaid.
Turned pancake batter into Mickey Mouse and dinosaurs.
Made dolls from hollyhocks.
Porkchops, potroast, meatloaf, and the perfect toasted cheese.
Eggs over just right.
Tacos with freshly fried shells.
Handmade Valentines.
I’ve made you laugh.
I’ve made acorn caps for people drawn on fingers.
And in the dark I’ve flown away, been big and strong and uncontrollable.
I’ve painted walls. Trimmed windows. Hung shutters.
Painted the ceiling royal blue, the crib bright red.
I’ve ordered a high chair from Spain and followed the directions
two days before the birth.
I’ve had less luck with a tricycle from Sears.
I’ve quilted. Made pillows from old bathing suits.
Decorated every where with the leavings from a hundred other lives.
I have made molehills out of mountains and leveled off their tops.
I have stretched dollars and time and energy.
And made something out of not much.
I have measured and packed and made it all fit somehow.
And done it once again.
I’ve listened. I’ve been home.
I have fried chicken, baked chicken, barbecued chicken, grilled chicken,
made chicken taquitos, chicken salad, chicken enchiladas, chicken in a
crockpot, with rice, with stuffing, with garlic mashed potatoes.
I have eaten the burned hot dog and the smallest piece of pizza.
I have fixed what you wanted. I have wanted what you fixed.
I have made pink and white seersucker pedal pushers,
a black satin flapper gown with rows of undulating fringe,
a sailor suit, a lime green mini-dressb
I’ve dusted and I’ve scrubbed and I’ve banished dirt.
I’ve washed dishes and clothes and dirty faces.
Cut the kernels off a wheelbarrowful of corn.
Picked blackberries and strawberries and tomatoes.
Made jam.
Made a lot of messes.
Made a lot of homes.
I have hung Grandma’s Chinese checkerboard in the dining room and
Mama’s souvenir state tablecloths at the kitchen windows.
I’ve made a place for Grandpa’s teddy bear in every living room I’ve had.
I’ve decorated Christmas trees and left them up all year.
I’ve written and I’ve dreamed and I’ve hoped to measure out significance.
I have.

What I discovered after I made my list is that the throughlines of my life include the creativity of “making do” and the longing for home. As I look at my work choices, these throughlines are clearly part of my teaching beliefs as well.

What does your life-list include?

The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves, they find their own order. . .the continuous thread of revelation.
• Eudora Welty

* Thanks to Edward Kleban.


What Kind of People We Become Depends Crucially On the Stories We Are Nurtured On *

January 28, 2010

Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks.
• Will and Ariel Durant

Steven Spielberg said that people have forgotten how to tell a story. I don’t agree, although I understand that this brief quotation I’ve written down on a 3×5 card several years ago is probably taken out of context. Still, it makes me think. I hear stories every day in the hallways at school. I overhear stories about love and fear and anger and despair. I hear stories about kindness and bad judgment. I listen to stories as the students with whom I work talk about their teaching experiences. I hear the joy of connection in some of their stories. I hear frustration and reflection as the stories of strategies and lessons that didn’t work turn into questions about what to do next time. I am steeped in stories.

I can, of course, offer the cold comfort of theory to my students. I am a teacher educator and this is stuff I know. One of my students told me he thought my class would be the place to get the right answers to all his classroom questions. I wish that this were so. My job would be much easier if I were the right answer gal. I am not. I can provide a multiplicity of approaches that a novice teacher might use. I can recommend lots of strategies. But my stories and the stories of other students are the most powerful tools. They bring the theory to life and they remind us of the idiosyncrasies of human interaction. The stories we choose to tell reveal what we value and who we are as educators.

Sometimes the stories we share are personal. Here’s one of my favorite family stories. It’s about some cousins of ours at the end of the nineteenth century. These folks were poor farmers barely scraping by on land that was worn out. They managed to feed themselves but couldn’t manage to do much else. They were sinking further and further into debt and were about to lose the farm. Then oil was found on their land. Not a lot. Not enough to make them really rich, but enough to alleviate their financial worries and enable them to buy more land and farm comfortably. They did a couple of other things with their money, though. They didn’t take exotic trips or buy fancy clothes or other stuff you might think the newly-rich would crave. No. They gave other family members, including my grandparents, money for a trip, and they built a carousel on their land. A full-size round-and-round-with-music-and-wooden-horses-prancing-up-and-down merry-go-round. And they invited the town to come and enjoy it.

This whimsical story resonates with me. I research fun in learning. My office is filled with things that make me smile. I live in The House of Stuff, home to The Amuseum of Un-Natural History. I was doing all these things long before I heard this story from Aunt Mildred, but once she told it to me I felt at home, kin to people I’ve never met who provide a context for my ways. I am well aware that this is all a bit of romanticizing poppycock, but that doesn’t make it any less delightful to me.

Our stories are inextricably linked to who we are and to what we value. What stories do you tell about yourself? About your family? What do you learn from your stories that helps you find direction for your life? What stories help explain you to you?

The word “story” is short for the word “history.” The both have the same root and fundamentally mean the same thing. A story is a narrative on an event or series of events, just like history.
• James M. Kouzes

Telling a true story about personal experience is not just a matter of being oneself, or even finding oneself. It is also a matter of choosing oneself.
• Harriet Goldhor Lerner

Tell a story from your life that illuminates a crucial aspect of your character.

I don’t know any family that doesn’t have a story anywhere. Besides, if you didn’t have those things in life, you’d be so bland.
• Orlando Bloom

* Title quotation is from Chinweizu, Nigeria

I’m off to a conference. I’ll be writing and posting when I can.


When the World Becomes Standard, I Will Start Caring About Standards.*

January 23, 2010

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides,
start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.
• Salman Rushdie

I do care about standards. I care about the standards I set for myself. I care that my students set standards for themselves. And I care that the standards each of us sets represent our attempts to produce work that is meaningful and of high quality. Although I understand the need for standardized tests, particularly in courses where it’s necessary to demonstrate knowledge of essential information, and while I also live with the reality of my own somewhat looser attempts to standardize assignments so that I will be able to complete the assessment process while also staying sane, it is always my dream that I will remain open to the possibilities of creative response and leave room for the unexpected in assignments where it is appropriate. For the learner, the ability to articulate her or his intentions in creative work is crucial and is an essential standard for non-standard work submitted to meet standards!

Another kind of standardization I cannot support is the tyranny of the majority, the idea that the majority rules. If a thousand people believe something that I do not believe, their belief does not make it true for me. There is far too much of this kind of talk from media pontificators. Listen long enough and you might believe that in a democracy, once a vote is taken, everyone, regardless of her or his  beliefs, should shut up and go along. I wrote this poem in response to such talk, framing it with quotations from Charles’ Dickens (1854) book, Hard Times. Dickens’ fears that the utilitarian values of his time could emphasize facts over imagination in education are certainly relevant today.

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will be of any service to them.
• Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, explaining his teaching methods, Charles Dickens (1854),
Hard Times

Just the Facts, M’am
Wlikins-O’Riley Zinn
West Wind Review (2006)

Show me the data.
Show me the numbers.
Show me the chart the graph the quadrangle of meaning so I’ll know
what to think what to do who I am. Why.
Show me the data.
Crunch ’em grind ’em wheedle ’em.
Churn out the facts, the truth, the real stuff.
Show me the data.
Tell me how many people hate to eat rats,
and if it’s not the majority,
why I’ll saute some for supper.
Show me the data.
Let’s see what we know about whether people like
being tied to posts in the desert while being bitten
by small furry mammals flung at them
by chanting crowds of arthritic tap dancers.
Show me the data.
It isn’t clear to me if we should consider requiring all drivers
to affix rhinestone buckles to their foreheads
to reflect the glare of oncoming headlights.
Show me the data.
I’m wondering if students would opt for being
superglued to their desks during tests
or if I should simply tie them down
with ropes braided from the hair of Venusian virgins.
Show me the data.
I’m not sure whether I’d prefer eating Spaghettios directly from the can while having my toenails pierced by ten-inch nails
or eating a quiet meal of Indonesian curry
with a few close friends and a good yet inexpensive bottle
of California chardonnay.

Show me the data so I can decide if I should
get out of bed brush my teeth eat breakfast drive my car go to work fall in love.

Show me the data.
So I can know.
Who to be.

You are to be in all things regulated and governed by Fact. We hope to have, before long, a Board of Fact, composed of Commissioners of Fact, who will force the people to be a people of Fact, and of nothing but Fact.
• Gentleman, Charles Dickens (1954)
, Hard Times

I write down quotations in the movies. Here’s one from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: “It is not our abilities that tell us who we truly are. . .it is our choices.” Choosing for yourself does not mean taking a vote among friends and family and advisors, no matter how tempting it might be to listen to other voices to find direction for your life. Having standards does not mean relying solely on outside guidelines to determine if your work is of high quality. The world is not standard. It never will be. The standards we set for ourselves are the standards that matter.

What standards have you set for yourself? What standards have you set for your work?

We should be seeking diversity, not proficient mediocrity.
• Donald M. Murray

* Rasmus Ledort


My Computer Is a Small, Yet Extremely Effective Time-Suckage Machine and I Am Stressed

January 21, 2010

Nicholas P. Negroponte, a computer scientist who founded the One Laptop Per Child organization, claims that “[i]t’s not computer literacy that we should be working on, but sort of human-literacy. Computers should have to become human-literate.” I agree. But computers have human users and those users also need to become aware of the human costs of their tech use.

I am stressed. Last night at almost 9 p.m. I received an email requesting a letter of recommendation. There was a job description attached so that I could figure out what to address, I suppose. At least it said there was. I didn’t open it. I didn’t have room in my brain for the information. The sender needs the letter to be mailed by Saturday. Although I truly respect this person’s intellect and would be delighted to provide a reference, I really do need more than a couple of days to do this.

Here’s another related hint: When you make a request and get a response, be sure to respond so that the person isn’t left hanging. This applies to setting up advising appointments or help sessions or any other kind of time commitment you’re requesting. I just received a kind and understanding email regarding the letter I was unable to write by Saturday. Imagine that you are me. For whom would you be willing to write a letter in the future? The person who never replies to you or the one who sees that you are a human being too

I really should know better than to check email when I get home from work, but since I’d been in meetings since 3 p.m. without a chance to look, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t something urgent like a meeting time change for the next day. Incidentally, here’s another hint related to human/computer interaction. I’m not your friend planning to meet you for a movie and I have to drive an hour to get to work, so if you want to cancel a meeting with me–unless the circumstances are extraordinary–don’t email me right before the meeting time.

As for the letter, I already have my work time committed for the next couple of days and the only place to get more time would be to give up some sleep or eat faster. I’ve already planned for my “free” time and will be using it to finish getting a conference presentation ready for next week. I’m behind because of several other requests for rush letters, and that’s another reality. As I’ve mentioned before, I have not yet found a time to make time elastic.

Technology is getting to me. I do love email because it’s preferable to listening to endless voicemails and I’m old enough to remember pre-answering machine days of endless attempts to contact someone. But just because you can reach someone and send something out, it’s not reasonable to expect 24/7 response•ability. I know that I am guilty of this myself, and so I don’t mean to sound as though I am not. Still, wanting a response to something that will require a couple of minutes and wanting several hours of a person’s time are different things and all of us should be aware of this.

Teachers are especially vulnerable to this kind of request, particularly if we care about our students’ success. Even being asked can activate our guilt button. As a student, you should be aware of the time cost of any query, particularly if you may be only one among many who are making similar requests. I’m delighted to provide input about multiple things, but not instantly. And please, do not get huffy when you email on Sunday morning and haven’t heard by afternoon. Ask yourself what students did before email and IM and voicemails. How might you get answers for your questions on your own. My son, who teaches middle school, asks his students to ask “three before me.”

There are other things I’m asked to do are things the person should do her- or himself. Even if I’ve read two million books, I’m not likely to want to spend the afternoon providing you with bibliography of “best” resources related to a particular topic. If I can think of something, I’ll be glad to share it, but I don’t want to do your work. It’s part of why students are in school, to learn to locate resources. I get asked to do this kind of thing quite frequently.

A couple of years ago, I got one of my favorite requests: “Here’s a list of my information. I know that you’re a former graphic designer, and I was wondering if you could create a resume for me since I’m headed off to a job fair next week and I want it to be perfect.” What I wanted to write back in response to this email (I didn’t even get asked in person) was “ARE YOU NUTS?!” Instead, I politely responded. I should have been clearer about how inappropriate this request was.

This isn’t my only tech challenge today. Let me simply say that institutions can have communications systems that are frustrating. I am sometimes left feeling like I am serving the system and not that the system is serving me. And then there’s the email I got today with sixty attachments. I’m interested in what’s in them, but until I look, I won’t know for sure. I fear my boat of good intentions will sink as it hits these shoals.

Neil Postman (1992) points out in Technopoly that there are winners and losers in the spread of computer technology. The winners tell the losers “that their lives will be conducted more efficiently. . .should the losers grow skeptical, the winners dazzle them with the wondrous feats of computers, almost all of which have only marginal relevance to the quality of the losers’ lives but which are nonetheless impressive” (p. 11). Many days I feel like a loser as technology becomes more and more intrusive and its benefits become instead huge time-suckage-frustrations.

What are the costs and benefits of technology in your life?

Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don’t need to be done.
• Andy Rooney

Working in an office with an array of electroic devices is like trying to get something done at home iwth half a dozen small children around. The calls for attention are constant.

•Marilyn vos Savant


Finding the Language of Your Dreams

January 20, 2010

I am a poet. This is one of my public dreams. Why do I write poetry? Of course, I’m a wordy kind of gal. Others may delight in mathematical equations and the dance of numbers, but I love words, and most especially I love the challenges of poetry. When I write an essay, I am not constrained by form. There are patterns to an essay, of course, but the content can go on and on and often does. Not so with poetry whose formulas often require subtraction, not addition.

I’ve been rereading Ken Robinson’s (2001), Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, and I refound (Note: Refound is a word even though your computer might not recognize it. If you Google® it you will find that it has multiple definitions, but here I’m using it linked to research. If you read or research a lot, you will discover that you “lose” crucial elements of your explorations and can refind them as you revisit favorite sources. This is why I am a believer in owning actual books and in flagging things of interest with fluttering yellow Post-Its®. Note within the note: I have Post-Its® of other colors, but like the good china, I find it difficult to use them except on special occasions.) the following information that makes sense to me:

Many people have problems with mathematics. Sir Harry Kroto sees this as a linguistic problem. People don’t speak mathematics. They see it as sort of a puzzle, the point of which isn’t wholly clear. Trying to appreciate equations if you don’t speak mathematics is like trying to appreciate a musical score if you don’t read music. Non-musicians see a puzzle; musicians hear a symphony. Those who speak mathematics look through equations to the beauty and complexity of the ideas they express. They hear the music. For the rest of us, grasping mathematical beauty is like trying to read Proust with a French phrasebook. (p. 131)

I speak poetry. I do not speak mathematics easily. I am a foreigner in its land and have learned to speak its language well enough to survive. Although I am married to a musician and am the daughter of a talented musician, the language of music is one that I once knew well, but have forgotten. Music is a competence I developed early in life, but it has never been a joy to me. I once played the piano quite well and it’s not that I cannot and do not appreciate music, but rather that it is not a primary passion nor a competence and talent that I choose to pursue. My only creative musical output now is the poetry of lyrics.

Robinson calls this finding your medium. If you are interested in actualizing your dreams, finding your medium is crucial. School can help, but it requires deliberate attention to discriminate among the things that are appealing and that you may even be good at, and those that will activate your passions.

What is your medium? What is the language of your dreams?

I get up at six in the morning. I wear cotton clothes so that I can sleep in them or I can work in them—I don’t want to waste time. Sometimes I work two or three days without sleeping and without paying attention to food.
• Louise Nevelson, artist