Deep thoughts, half digested

For the most part, I’m happy with the way the semester is going. However, I know that some of my students are not pulling their weight on team-oriented projects. It was with this mindset that I read Buddhist Economics, an essay by E. F. Shumacher, in a collection given to me by my mother (specifically, Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered). There are some very deep ideas to be explored within this essay, but one piece that jumped out at me was this:

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

This resonated with my philosophy of (higher) education. The work is an end in itself, or specifically, the work is epistemic: all our work is “knowledge work”. Higher education should destroy the ego, replacing self-centeredness with an understanding of our dependency on other people, other times, and other places.

I came to 345/545 today with the goal of inspiring my students. I spent about 20 minutes on the topic, starting with Shumacher, then moving into a borrowed analogy of baseball. The question is, “Who gets a short pop to left field?”, and almost immediately someone shouted out the “correct” answer: whoever calls it! I talked just briefly about globalization in IT, with some helpful feedback from Siva and John (who are from India and China, respectively). From there, I brought in Tip #2 from the Pragmatic Programmer: Provide Options, Don’t Make Lame Excuses. This was followed on the heels by an entreaty for students to take their teams seriously, to be the one to call “I got it!” and never to be sitting and waiting to be told what to do. (Some of these ideas echo themes in Ron Brumbarger’s recent colloquium on campus, in case you were there.)

I am passionate about these ideas. I love these ideas. I love the potential in all of us for endless creativity, the capacity to restlessly produce.

I am disheartened that as I spoke to the class, about half of the attendees were staring at their laptops, never looking up, showing neither interest nor awareness of the fact I was sharing my passion. I did not snap a photo or keep notes of who was who, but it struck me, as I asked if there were questions or feedback, that the people who appeared to be listening intently were exactly the people who had already called the ball. Maybe I was just preaching to the proverbial choir, but the rule of three interpretations requires me to look for alternatives.

This may have been a case of trying to do too much in one meeting. On the calendar, we were scheduled to look over risk matrices. Over the weekend, I decided I would spend a few minutes showing Connect the Dots and talking about the implementation and tools. As it turns out, we never got the risk matrices, and we didn’t even get to LogCat, one of the most important parts of the ADT. It was the most talking I’ve done in one of our meetings all semester, and it was entirely too much talking. I had a great chat with a colleague from Religious Studies the other day, who pointed out that students do entirely too much (1) sitting and (2) listening.

If I could do it all again, I would have put together an activity to drive home the ideas I was trying to express through oral communication. I am not sure what the nature of these activities would be, honestly, but creating them would have been — you guessed it — epistemic. (A ten-cent word that shows up in every other sentence of my recent grantsmanship.)

Now, the window of opportunity is closed, and I have to hope that in their partial attention, the students who need the message have heard it, and perhaps those in the choir have been reinvigorated.


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