Here are two examples of writing that does get to gist: A conservative explains When ‘Identity Politics’ is Rational, and the Douglas Adams-inspired website offers up a summary of a different kind of economics.

What did Rafael find inspiring about Thump’s post, and what could not be taken away from a representation of Steph and Rafael’s conversation to keep it clear that you are referring to our conversation?

Students proposed a wide range of reasons for Rafael’s appreciation of Thump’s post, including the quality (style) of the writing itself, the actual content, literal quotes, and analytical inferences. I’m interested in these explanations because their diversity illustrates the challenge of pinning down “meaning”. (Neither philosophers nor linguists agree on the meaning of meaning.)

One way to answer the assigned question: “What was it about Thumpasorus’s decision-making post about not attending the No Mas FARC protest that impressed Rafael so much?” was to extrapolate directly from what Rafael wrote. Several students noted the contrast Rafael made with reasons posed by other students (see donwayneleach for an acknowledgment), leading to the conclusion that Thump “did not take the easy way out” by citing common reasons for not attending, and one student quoted Rafael’s statement that “there was something more. Worth reading.” These literal “meanings” are sufficient if one is only interested in the transmission of a simple message with unambiguous content. I would venture to suggest that these real and factual statements are evidence of a larger frame. Perhaps the words themselves indicate particular meanings, but the meaningfulness of the conversation is in/from the frame(s).

Many students noticed the high quality of Thump’s writing, describing it as “thoughtful,” “thorough, ” and “in-depth.” For instance, “The thought process that she presented was extremely well thought out and was articulated in a concise, intelligent manner.” Additionally, some students remarked that this post was “realistic” and “more revealing,” beginning with the opening, in which Thump’s “initial reaction [was] written in a very honest way.” The quality of being “honest” was mentioned frequently and described as “refreshing.” Someone thought Thump shifted into an explanation of “the real reasons for not attending.”

One of the interesting aspects of this particular interaction among all of us (teacher, students, community activist) is how we might identify and address feedback. It is possible to get stuck in a narrow definition that says “feedback” is a particular kind of commentary that offers either criticism or praise. But feedback is any kind of communication that is delivered in the present, about something that happened in the past, with potential to affect the future (Seashore, Seashore, and Weinberg). By identifying what you think Rafael meant, you give him information (feedback) about how other people read his words, but even more than that (!) you give information about yourself: in other words, given the question of identifying the gist (!) of Thump’s post you inform me (and anyone else who is reading) what you find important – either to yourself personally, or that fits some criteria you’ve learned that supposedly defines the category. By noticing what you do and don’t “find” – or at least, what you do and don’t say that you’ve found – I gather feedback (!) that helps me decide on the next activities.

Since we are studying ourselves as a group (in this course on group dynamics, with an emphasis on decision-making), I’m committed to bringing our focus to the task of sorting through the inevitable diversity of responses which can all be considered “right” to one degree or another. The reason for this is that in all groups with a task there is always a twofold outcome: the product (content) and the evaluation of how well the content matches up with the intention (process). For evaluation to be meaningful, there must be a standard of measurement. Can we be even more specific about what earned Thump the “congratulations” of someone not even in our class?

Several of you did name much more particular elements and/or describe what differentiated Thump’s post from the others. These more analytical responses fall roughly into three groups: those that evaluated Thump’s writing on the basis of engagement with Rafael’s issue of concern (FARC), those that evaluated Thump’s writing on the basis of engagement with material in our class, and those that evaluated Thump’s writing more generally, on the basis of broad application.

Thump “showed some knowledge of FARC.” Admitting the delay in memory, the author brings up many ideas from the conversation between Steph and Rafael, “actually [giving] some thought into the proper approach for dealing with FARC,” going so far as even to “[bring] up the valid point that the US should be more involved in dismantling FARC.” In fact, Thump even “told his friends in Boston.”

As far as applying course material, both leadership and decision-making are identified. “Thump analyzed his decision-making unlike anyone else in the class,” with another student concluding, “Thump’s decision-making process was not entirely selfish.” The combination of all the features identified lead to a recognition of leadership: Thump “displayed leadership skills: even when everyone in the class seemed to have the same ‘boring’ answers.”

Finally, some students suggested even broader grounds for marking Thump’s post for special notice. Not only did Thump respond to the direct (required) question, Thump “linked the ideas about the rally to other parts of their life.” The writing was “eloquent and thorough” enough that an outline could be identified:

1. Direct (personal) experience
2. Social action in general
3. Reason for not attending

Two other features of Thump’s post were identified that do not easily fit into the categories above. One is the way Thump acknowledges “aware[ness] of his own apathy” and the second is how the hypothesis offered by one student that having done such careful analysis in writing is what actually “produced for the writer a way to make some impact -> educating friends.”

We’ve been talking (in class) about frames (according to Goffman). Pedagogically, I want students to recognize the frames they bring to the classroom. Theoretically, they will also hopefully learn to develop two generalizable skills: recognizing the frames they bring to other situations, and realizing when their own frame is in conflict with other people’s frames in that situation. This is the crucial foundation for grappling with the unpredictable permutations of group dynamics. Simultaneously, we’re reading After Dachau. I am trying to establish wonder as the normative principle for dealing with difference.

Somehow, the students need to combine this theoretical information into the practical task of creating a course wikisite. As they grapple with defining the gist of the site – that specific, precise point or idea that links everything together – I hope they will consider the interaction of frames they build upon and the one they model. For instance, some of the things that gave students pause while reading After Dachau include:

  • “…why each place of time is different. I think of time passing by and effecting the next day ahead of it.”
  • the mystery of ““trying to piece it together like it was written today”
  • the dilemmas of “culturally enforced ethics & history”
  • and
  • the role and conceptions of language: (e.g., sign language? Deaf? Can’t speak? Learns speech so fast?)

The novel (which is fiction) takes “a big turn” at a certain point. Will students design a site that invites/engages readers in “turning” (i.e., breaking frames) or will they choose to deliberately reproduce a particular frame?

I wonder. 🙂