collective and contiguous learning

This week I’ve been getting ready for two days of strategic planning with one of the CSU’s disciplinary affinity groups, reading faculty responses to surveys of where their field is heading, and how their community of practice might respond.  It makes for a compelling look at one frontier of knowledge, and it calls to mind some other things I’ve been reading.

innovatorsOn the publication of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson recently addressed a group of investors who were eager to inform their next bets.  Here’s how the Washington Post quoted his advice:

“The real value creation, especially in the technological revolution, is not just from the engineers but the people who connect the humanities to technology, or the arts to science,” he said.  “That has been the theme so far of the digital revolution,” he said.

The Post article goes on to report that “Isaacson called on those who study the sciences and humanities to pursue knowledge of the others’ discipline, and to come together to develop the transformative technologies of the future,” paraphrasing an observation he’s made elsewhere recently.  As Isaacson said, “One of the conclusions I came to was it wasn’t just lone visionaries who made this happen.”

He put it more starkly last month, in an interview for Harvard Gazette:

Those of us who write biographies know that to some extent we distort history.  We make it seem like somebody in a garage or in a garret has a ‘light-bulb moment’ and the world changes, when in fact creativity is a collaborative endeavor and a team sport.

These ideas aren’t new.  Around a century ago Shaw wrote this in the preface to his play Major Barbara:

“If there is such a thing on the philosophic plane as a matter of course, it is that no individual can make more than a minute contribution to it.  In fact, the conception of clever persons parthenogenetically bringing forth complete original cosmogonies by dint of sheer ‘brilliancy’ is part of that ignorant credulity which is the despair of the honest philosopher, and the opportunity of the religious impostor.”

So, same ideas, differently (but always wonderfully) expressed.

You can see that same humility in these dispatches from CSU faculty at the bleeding edge of one discipline – a hunger to build on the understanding of others.  Except these survey responses have a new wrinkle, amid the chronic pleas for money, staff, equipment, and release time:  they want help conducting interdisciplinary research.


Until very recently, we organized the production of knowledge in isolated departments, leaving any connections to emerge on their own:

honeycomb 1a

In that world, whose assumptions shaped ours, the premium was on sustained focus and individual reputation within the discipline, as established by sole or leading credit for publication reviewed by peers – that is, by other experts in the same field.  It sounds a little incestuous, and can be.  (A friend of mine in a private non-profit university calls it “the quarterly journal of You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours.”)  But for generations, this system served us pretty well.

Looking ahead, we want to add support for the interdisciplinary production of knowledge, filling in the buffer zone around disciplines:

honeycomb 3a

That is, we’ll want to foster learning that’s not just collective, but contiguous.

And in this emerging world, the new premium is on openness to exogenous ideas, on lucid communication crafted for educated outsiders, and on getting along.  We could see tenure decisions based not only on contributions to fields in isolation, but also, maybe even mostly, on the candidate’s ability to help other people apply those contributions to their own work.

Behind the scenes, universities and the informal learning communities that flourish inside them should stop leaving those interdepartmental connections to chance.  Instead, we can add value by cultivating the boundaries, the interfaces between ways of knowing.

pinker.stevenThis occurred to me as I was reading a Steven Pinker book on good writing, called The Sense of Style.  As a language junkie I’m a pushover for such stuff, but Pinker’s angle is especially intriguing:  a psychologist, he draws his advice from concepts like working memory, the human attention span, and cognitive load.  The result is equal parts utilitarian and beautiful, a grammar book that puts purpose above tradition.

But there’s also something fundamental in here, bigger than sentence structure and central to the way we share our ideas.

Repeatedly he comes to the chief failing of those who don’t communicate well, what he calls the “Curse of Knowledge.”  As he puts it:

The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.

One whole chapter deconstructs typically bad academic writing, of the kind that Pinker and the rest of us run into regularly.  At the end he summarizes the diagnosis:

“Most of the problem comes down to the very expertise that made [the author] so qualified to write his books . . . after a lifetime of scholarship he was so laden with erudition that his ideas came avalanching down faster than he could organize them.”

I think there’s a reason this theory-of-mind argument recurs in a psych-based grammar book:  understanding the other is essential to the negotiation of space between consciousness, to filling in those gaps between us, and between our academic departments.  Listening carefully, evaluating how much your audience already knows, and then sequencing the new information for optimal understanding, is a growing part of the job.  We seem to be running out of ways to make progress without it.

This leaves me wondering if we’ll see a new set of organizing principles shape our intra-system learning communities, along with our journals of faculty research, our student research competitions, and, I guess eventually, our colleges and departments.

They’d all be better suited to the work ahead if they promoted interpersonal and interdisciplinary communication, bringing people together on the basis not of where they came from (the way we do now), but of where they want to go.


4 thoughts on “collective and contiguous learning

  1. Hi Ken: I think that you’ve hit on an important notion for the future of the humanities: we need to find our “intersections” with other disciplines, because that’s where interesting ideas often develop. Scientists have known and practiced this for a while; consider the ideas that have come from the intersection of biology and chemistry (genetics) and chemistry and physics (materials science). My own discipline — History of Science — has joined the Philosophy and Sociology of Science to create Science Studies, which thrives in many institutional climates (like UCSD, just down the road from you). Interdisciplinarity is where it’s at!

    Keep writing! Alice

    1. Really good points about the scientists doing this — and productively. Could you do humanities across the curriculum? Science across the curriculum? Feels like where this is leaning . . . thank you for stopping by, Alice.

      1. Hi Ken, It seems to me that you ask me the wrong question. Could I teach humanities across the curriculum? No, probably not (I could manage literature, but philosophy? No way). The question should be “can we educate our graduate students to be able to teach humanities (social sciences, etc.) across the curriculum?” There the answer is emphatically “YES” — and we should be. Part of the problem with reforming university curricula is that the graduate education system in this country rarely does anything about teaching teachers to teach — it’s all about the research. So, when grad students make it onto the market, they may have TA’ed in a course or two, and may have even taught a special seminar in their topic, but they generally have done no thinking about what they will spend the rest of their 30+ year careers doing. I can’t think of another profession in which this is the case. (Writing specialist are an exception in higher ed, as are many — though not all — education faculty.)

        Scientists, of course, are trained to be multi-disciplinary if their research interests demand it. I had a terrific student decide while working on a reading course with me on the history of the influenza epidemic of 1918 that she wanted to work on flu research. She was a straight-A chemistry student, but needed biology training — so we sent her to a MS program in biology to prepare her for the PhD coursework she would need to follow her dream. (She’s now a student at Carnegie-Mellon.)


  2. Really well put — thank you. It does indeed come down to how we prep for the profession, and then continue to update the teaching skills of the professoriate, as we better understand how learning works. I think there’s growing support for the ideas you present here, but as you say, the changes are still mostly ahead of us. Very cool examples.

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