Drive Together. Together, Drive.

I am lucky enough to co-instruct GRAD 602: Teaching, Learning, and Technology, with Jeff Nugent and Britt Watwood.  In this course, we guide graduate students and postdoc fellows through a series of arguments meant to convey that, as the future faculty of America, they need to develop their pedagogical skills as well as their disciplinary knowledge.  Then they need to marry the two in compelling ways for their students.  
Compelling.  We used that word several times this past week as we asked the students to roll through learning activities.  “Describe a compelling use of digital technology in a course you woud teach,” we asked them.  Compelling. What exactly are we asking them to do?
com·pel·ling (kəmˈpeliNG. adjective.)  (1) Evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way. (2) Not able to be refuted; inspiring conviction.  (3) Not able to be resisted; overwhelming.

Interesting how the definition goes from polite to intimidating in only three phrases. I think it’s reasonable to think about higher education in the context of the first definition; anything beyond that sounds like evangelist bootcamp or possibly some sort of indoctrination program, with flashing lights and swirling figurines. Pictures of elephants on beachballs perhaps.

So, as educators, how do we evoke interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way?  

“Compelling” comes from the latin “com” and “pel” which mean “together” and “drive,” respectively.  

Together, Drive.  
Drive together.  

Could it be as simple as that?

So, first we have the concept: “Together, drive.”  In a constructivist classroom, students are involved in roadmapping the curriculum.  They have a say in the objectives, the assignments, and the assessment.  They have buy-in.  They are empowered to do the same sort of learning processes long after the course is over and the professor has gone away. Involving the students in creating the process simply works better at achieving the actual endpoint of learning.  

[*As an aside, I could change “classroom” to “research,” “student” to “community members,” and “professor” to “researcher” and I could be talking about community-based participatory research, which we know works very well in the complex matters of public health–just ask the NIH.]

But now, the second: “Drive together.”

To me, this speaks to what happens when there is an unusual juxtaposition of usual things.  I was watching a celebrity episode of Chopped the other night and a television actor dusted his homemade vanilla ice cream with curry powder at the last moment. You should have heard the howls from the judges when they saw what he was doing (“He DID NOT just do that!”).  But when they tasted it, the responses turned into “The cumin and turmeric work on ice cream.  I don’t know why, but they do.”
To my mind, unusual juxtaposition of usual things achieves several things:

(a) The contrast allows for emic and etic understanding. I’ve discussed this before in terms of Joni Mitchell…”Don’t it always seem to go that we don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone.”  Or if you aren’t a fan of folk-pop, how about Libby Tisdell’s metaphorically compelling argument about sunflowers: “Study the light on the faces of sunflowers and then study the shadows on the underside, so that you might understand the light better.  But always return to the light.”  

(b) It triggers discomfort, which heightens sensual awareness.  I’ve discussed this too.  Are you finding my font changes uncomfortable?  Good.  In education, the key to proper presentation is to introduce enough discomfort to demand attention, but not to overwhelm the content.  By taking things out of context, giving them unusual neighbors, we make them strange.  I believe this argument is best made by Jim Morrison: “People are strange when you’re a stranger.”  Or, if you aren’t a classic rock fan…well, you should be, so I’ll stop there.

Ok, I’ll relent.  If you aren’t a classic rock fan, then check out a documentary called “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.”  In it, a second-rate lion tamer discusses how lions are trained to like the cage.  Lions are creatures of comfort.  They like their food (located in the cage).  They like their nice bed (located in the cage).  Thus, outside the cage actually feels more like a prison than the inside, because it is uncomfortable.  But it is outside the cage in which they are actually free.  

Move ideas outside of the cage of normalcy.  
Move yourself outside the cage of normalcy.
Which brings me to my third point…

(c) Unusual juxtaposition of usual things promotes dynamicism.  

Kali: by Raja Ravi Varma

If you are a fan of drug commercials or, alternatively, introductory physics, then you know that a body that is in motion tends to stay in motion and a body that is still tends to stay still.  Once you’ve used a lever to pry a boulder out of the mud of its context, it rolls.  You can pick it up and move it anywhere.  It is the foundation of deconstructive thematic analysis.  It is the foundation of word processing.  

There is a Hindu goddess named Kali who is responsible for regeneration through destruction.  Her tongue perpetually hangs from her open mouth, feeding on the blood of fallen men.  She’s a dirty god in the context of a purity-based religion, the affirmed underbelly of Parvati, who is the idealization of feminine goodness.  Kali is marginalized and essential all at the same time, the lesser discussed consort to Lord Shiva.  While Shiva is the lord of eternal time, Kali is the other sort of time (as in “time has come”).  This is dynamic yet composed juxtaposition.  This is compelling.

Q. How do I apply my theoretical
framework of compellingness 
in the classroom?

A. First, I go to the art museum.  

I believe art museums have a lot to teach professors.  If you think about it, art as defined in a 1980s elementary school sense has very little purpose beyond being compelling. Good art = compelling.  So…study art.  Study how curators set up their exhibits and then use your lever to lift the boulder out of its context and roll it on over to your classroom.
I lift many of my ideas directly out of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts 
where special exhibits are:




I’ve talked about the Hollywood Costume exhibit elsewhere.  Many people went.  I found curricular inspiration in the following elements.

(1) Viewers moved multi-directionally, never in straight lines or in a consistent direction for too long.  That being said, the movement was slow as to not jar the viewers.
(2) Viewers moved meaningfully.  Much of the exhibit was set up like a runway fashion show, which is obviously consistent with the content.
(3) Viewers used multiple senses.  Sight, sound, touch were all covered, along with kinesthetic movement.  
(4) Viewers experienced the costumes in various states of movement.  Still, three- dimensionally, on the mannequins.  Movie posters showed them still, in two dimensions.  Movies on screens showed the costumes two-dimensionally, in action.  Moving shadows of the costumes were thrown onto walls, somewhat three-dimensionally.

Compelling example of 
classroom application:

UNIV 391.  UNIV 391 is a undergraduate level, 1 credit, pass/fail, independent study course on using mobile technologies in learning.  The students were lent iPads at the beginning of the semester.  Each week we address a different area of application: productivity, collaboration, communication, augmented reality.  The students do some presenting, the professors do some presenting, and we all do a lot of experimenting with apps together.

For “collaboration,” I placed the students in a “collaboration pod,” using rolling whiteboards to lightly enclose the students in a space in which they were compelled to work together to define collaboration.  

For “augmented reality” I set up the room in the same formation as the exhibit so that students could experience the augmented reality examples, moving in and out of cozy niches that compelled them to focus on the experience in front of them (and experience it in ones or pairs, not bunching into large clusters that could impede the activity).  We even set up a staging area separate from the exhibit for the introduction and played lava lamp music to set the tone.

I’ve used the Hollywood Costume Exhibit in other educational contexts as well, but will stop there for now.  
So go forth and be compelling.  

Drive together and together, drive. 


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