Language, Education, and the Curriculum — and “Content”

From a letter to a friend:

One of my questions regarding language teaching has always been what “content” students are introduced to when, and since language bleeds into (our definition of) culture and cultural anthropology, when do students get to explore that notion? Especially students who take anywhere from one to four semesters and no more. In my ideal world those students would be exploring the nature of language, meaning, culture, and conflict equally with learning to converse, read, and write. … And I don’t mean the kinds of essays, stories, and dialogues in current first and second year textbooks. … So that students who do not get to the third and fourth year courses will have some skill in dealing with people who are different from them, whether they speak the same dialect or not. I think, in terms of world peace and understanding, the meaning/(mis)understanding/(mis)communication element is key. Not that wars could necessarily be prevented, given greed, selfishness, and the ego issues people face. But I do believe that, if we had to understand the meaning-making rules of certain Middle Easterners, and if they had to understand ours — at deep visceral levels (maybe somehow through experiential/service learning — heaven knows, there are many nationalities/backgrounds in the DFW area), then there would be less prejudice. The same goes for different ethnicities in our own country. The trouble is, this is also a societal and curriculum issue, and the people who control society and those who control the curriculum also need this kind of understanding. It is, however, often a threat to them.

But, getting back to my first notions — So how does one “do” content then? Anyway, one of my video projects may be addressing just these topics, i.e. the fact that one may be speaking the same language, but not having the same or similar meanings when conversing, reading, writing, etc. (My same ol’ soap box.) …

… it is heartening to know that there are many “out there” who are asking the “right” questions, caring about what it is that students are accomplishing/transcending/learning/doing, and who want to provide the context in which students can flourish. I guess that’s the ultimate goal: students flourishing, and flourishing can be a number of things, of course.

May 7, 2015

Dave Cormier hits the nail on the head when he says that the “content” of a course of study is the person or community. In other words, it is a group of people (scholars and the professor of a course) who determine what slice of the pie of knowledge and information, and what interpretation(s) are to be included in a course. In a nutshell, those people determine the ideas, the facts, and the interpretations to which students are exposed. What he is calling for, I believe, is a broadening of this pie. Within a field of study are more materials, analyses, and arguments than can be fit into a course. Students should be able to choose the content, within parameters, I suppose.

In my latter years in the profession I suppose that is what I tried to do: give students some parameters and then let them find their way in the subject matter. Guidance is perhaps the key, because students can 1) stray and 2) attempt to take short cuts, given that they often overbook their lives.

I was once given the analogy of a stuffed suitcase, whereby you attempt to fit the “clothes” of a field of study into the suitcase, but because there are so many “clothes,” many of them hang out of the suitcase. Once you close it, you cut away the clothes that are hanging out. I don’t know whether that is an apt analogy, but it is a point of depature for thought.

So the questions that arise in educators’ minds – and maybe they have been addressed – are these:

  • How does one coordinate a curriculum?
  • How does one “keep students from straying” too far – in terms of topics and interpretations, for while everything is related, and while there may be a number of arguable interpretations, students are often new to this kind of learning and there can be arguably “wrong” interpretations.
  • How does one do this kind of teaching/learning in what many academics consider stepping-stone courses, i.e. courses that you must take one after the other, and in courses such as engineering, where people believe there are “facts” and “methods” to be learned, but where also ethics and the context of doing an engineering job are also important?

Siemens says students and educators should co-construct the curriculum, based on questions of inquiry. Cormier says content should not be a slice of the field, as is often the case, but students should be able to choose.

Evidently, a lot of scholars are discussing this, so maybe they have more in-depth answers to these questions:

Now, how to convince others and how to demonstrate how to do it. Again, maybe they are doing that.




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Education must be much more and much less than it is today. Consider the apprentice, who spends time learning from the master, being with the master, watching, hearing, observing, seeing, smelling, feeling/touching the elements out of which the product is made, whether it be bread, a machine, or a window frame, learning the philosophy, the knowledge, the attitude and values, the understanding of the world of this craft, and experiencing the day-to-day life of the master craftsman/(today also craftswoman).

In our university educational system, such apprenticeship with a master comes only to the few, those who have stayed in college much longer than most: the Ph.D. candidate, who works with the master, the dissertation director, and with several other masters, those serving on his/her committee. But it is only the select few that receive such attention, such apprenticing. Consider our higher education system today: masses of students come into the large universities and often sit in classes of 100 to 300 or more; then as they major in a field those classes become smaller, but still can be large – although 30 students in a upper level course is not uncommon. Once in graduate school, the classes become even smaller. As for one-on-one “apprenticeship” between master and student, that can happen for a small number of students at the upper level of undergraduate education, the master’s level, and of course at the Ph.D. level. Only very few students have this opportunity, and of course usually the most intensive “apprenticeship” happens at the Ph.D. level. How many people ever get to experience that? I read a number of years ago that it was one in 400 women. As for men, I do not know.

The apprenticeship system has much to be said for it. While it usually involves a great deal of book learning (at least in some systems), nevertheless it goes far beyond that book learning, and as I intimated above, becomes a holistic education, reaching into the context of one’s profession or field of study: the ethics, laws, attitudes, beliefs, implications of behavior and action, and philosophy that undergird that profession or field of study.

Is it worth it to be great if you must experience whiplash?

I saw the cuts from the film Whiplash on the Academy Awards 2015 show last night. Seeing the cuts made me not want to see the film. I do not enjoy seeing people abused, even in fiction. It has to be well worth watching abuse and violence for me to willingly agree to do so.

I do not know whether I will go see this movie. I am somewhat drawn to do so, because I want to know the attitude towards teaching that is portrayed in this movie. Does it advocate such “pushing” to bring out “greatness” in students? Does it portray itself as an antidote to being too lenient with students? What does it say about learning? It may well be a film layered with meaning or a “hollow psycho-thriller.” 

But it makes me ask the question in the title of this post — and different people may answer differently. Maybe there are people who need to be “forced” to be excellent. But in my own experience, it was encouragement that gave me the further excitement and enthusiasm to push on in my learning. If I had been pushed in the other way, I would have been beaten down or enraged, and I wonder how much I would have learned. (As you see from former posts, I was enraged by a professor and went home and wrote a song about it!!! But I was not happy!!!) Those who were critical of my work seem to me to be people either who did not know how to help me or who expected a degree of background knowledge coming into a course that I did not possess. It was those who were gentler who helped me excel further.

Maybe there are people out there who learn by being verbally or physically abused. Yet what price must then be paid by the individual who succeeds? That experience of abuse will be with him or her for the rest of his/her life. And what price must then be paid by the individual who does not succeed? Perhaps an even higher price.

And yet sometimes learning and happiness are the result of doing something that is unpleasant, even painful. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes: “The best moments [in our lives] usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. … Such experiences are not necessarily pelasant at the time they occur. The swimmer’s muscles might have ached during his most memorable race. … But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life – that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.”

Yet he also says: “[Optimal experience] is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind ships through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt—sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator. Or it is the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile.”

I think the pain described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is different from the pain of abuse by another person. The pain of mastery is different from the pain of abuse. Furthermore, sometimes when optimal experience occurs, the effort it took might have been challenging, but I would not call it painful in every instance. When I discovered the ways in which communication does not occur, even though people think they are communicating, it was not painful. It took reading, thinking, discussion, but it was not painful. Learning another language was sometimes very difficult, and that was “a pain,” but when I got to learn by doing, the good feelings outweighed the negative. When I wrote articles that were eventually published, there were negative aspects to them – the fear that the next article might not be good enough. Of course. There were challenges. And practicing a piece of music until it “shines” is sometimes verrrrry repetitious (and scales and chords can be boring even if you are “in the moment” with them), but not necessarily painful in any way. Of course, I didn’t want to make mistakes, and depending on my emotional state, I might be somewhat afraid when performing, but at other times I was not, and the little tension that occurred was easily overcome. I usually was with people who wanted me to succeed, and that made me less nervous, even when participating in the National Guild Piano Auditions.

There is, however, a state in which I am completely “in the moment” when I am doing something. When I am writing and feeling centered or playing the piano and feeling centered, and all else fades away, it is very satisfying. Does that constitute happiness, or a kind of happiness? It certainly would not feel so good if I had been abused into doing it. That is what I think Csikszentmihalyi is referring to when he talks about the sailor, the painter, and the father. That is where I like to live.

Personally, if it takes abuse to be great, I do not want to be great. I’ll take optimal experience anytime over that.

What is higher education for, anyway?

I know this is not the first time I’m talking about the value of higher education. However, I’ve still been having thoughts on same.

The public is often asked to think of higher education in terms of jobs and job skills preparation. Is that all higher education is good for? I think not. While such skills and preparation are truly important, both for society and for the individual student, there is another reason for higher education that is just as important, if not more so. It is expanding your horizons, deepening your insight, and having those awesome, momentous “aha” experiences that are life-changing. Not only do they increase the quality of life of the individual student, helping him or her to understand people, life, and reality in ways that he or she did not before, but they are also better for society, helping those same students go beyond the public sound soundbites of the culture. I will explain more later.

Retirement is keeping me quite busy!!! 🙂

Jackson's Edge

A Campus Grows Up

In the early 1990s I wrote (after having read Dorothy Parker’s verse):

The architecture of UTA
As seen while driving down Cooper “Allée”
Is interesting at first, and for the purpose it serves.
But after awhile, it grates on the nerves.

December, 2014:


UTA Grows Up 

No longer do I have to think that.
UTA has become UT Arlington
And has grown up.
And yet at each stage of life
We lose something
When we gain something.
Nor is each stage perfect.

We lose something:
The simple times
Of the commuter school
When all could afford
The $4 credit hour,
When this public university
Was truly funded
By the public
Instead of now,
When it is funded only
And the money must now come
From the students
And private and governmental
And one must
Be beholden to
Those endowments. …
When no one was climbing
Up the proverbial
Ladder of
Prestige, Power, and Popularity,
Just “doing their job.”

We gain something:
People trying to make a difference
In a new way
In the lives of all whom
UT Arlington touches,
Reaching ever more students
In new ways
With new means,
Students whose parents
Never had the chance,
Students proud
To be attending
A school
That is
A contender.

No stage is perfect.
Each stage has
The other
Each stage has its own

Today UTA looks like the coherent, well conceived campus of a major university. It is very good looking!!! As you walk the campus, it feels “right.”

The Ego in Academia, the Ego in Life

The ego says,

Look at me and
what I create.

The ego says,
Look at the other person and
the adulation they are getting that
I am not.

The ego says,
I am unhappy.

The centered self says,
Let’s play.

No matter what we are doing:
Dancing and Singing.

Let it be play.

The ego replies,
But there is too much to do.
I am overstressed.

The centered self says,
Yes, I hear you, Ego.
That is the culture we live in,
Yet is there not something you
can let go of,
in order to
do the real work of life …


Questions to Ask Upon the Creation of a Syllabus


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Do you ever consider the students
when you create a course syllabus?

Do you ask yourself …
who the students are?
what experiences they will bring to the course?
how those experiences will affect
their perceptions,
their interpretations,
their understanding –
their learning?

Do you consider the course
yours alone,
or will it be their course as well?

In what ways is it up to you to choose “content,”
that there is a vast body of knowledge,
controversy, and
in your course’s subject matter –
too much for one short semester or even several?

What choices will you allow students
to co-create
their own syllabus,
their own questions,
their own foci,
their own learning
and the means to it?

Do you ask yourself
years from now,
your students will have that is of value
from your course and whether,
at the end of their lives,
they will be
all the richer
for having experienced
with you
your course?

Can you be a bow to the arrows that are your students?

Are you a gardener or a warden?

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For some insights into the quest, see George Siemens and company. See also his description of Personal Knowledge Graphs.

Harnessing the Energy of the Creative Self – How Are We to Do It in Education?


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Jackson's EdgeHuman beings love to create – and, often, to share that creation. I just began a photography blog, in which each post is a photo that I have taken that I especially like. After posting about six or so pictures for the first time, I received emails that several photographers and one artist had found my blog and expressed that they liked one or more of the photos. Now, I’m sure that they would like for me to become a follower of their weblog, and that is probably a main reason for their liking mine. However, I was glad to see that someone has viewed my photography. So I went to the blogs of these photographers, and I just had the following thought, which led to another:

Human beings like to create. These bloggers like to take pictures or draw and use their creative side not only to take them, but to compose them, and you can tell that they are thinking about subject matter, composition, color, etc. when you see their work. You also see what interests them, or what they think good photography is. These pictures tell you a lot about the people – even where they are from (one’s from the Russian-speaking world, I think).

Human beings like to share their creations – not everyone, but many, many do, from famous creators to unknown ones. We would like at least one other person to acknowledge – even like or appreciate – what we are doing. Even those who are too shy or lacking in self-confidence about their creations may share their work with a few people.

All this has led to another thought, actually a question: How can we encourage such a creative spirit in the learning environment, whether the educator is with the student or not, i.e. whether the “master” is physically present with the “apprentice” or not? How can we nourish, encourage, foster this tremendous creative urge that “springs forth eternal” in the human spirit, but is often not seen in the school or college class?

What makes a person learn on her or his own? Create on his or her own? Certainly, it is about urges, enthusiasm, pleasure, joy, maybe the desire to be acknowledged for what one has created, maybe the desire to share an idea or an image, or to persuade someone of something, and — learning that comes out of a need to know for the self’s own creative reasons is one of the best reasons to learn.

School and the university are, by their very natures, evaluative processes. Those processes can stifle people, so how do we help people move beyond the grade, and how do we encourage them in their work, even as we have to grade their work? How do we encourage rather than discourage the creative and learning impulses that are so truly ours as homo sapiens? And how do we help those, who are shy or more lacking in self-confidence, share their creations without fear of scholarly retribution?

I thought I’d share with you links to my own blog and the blogs and websites of those who expressed a liking for my photography, for we all like to have an audience, and you may be interested in taking a look.

Here are links to those who saw mine:

America in Black-and-White:


Nature Has No Boss:

Markovich from Russia:


View from the Road:

One Drawing Daily: – a person who is going to draw at least one picture daily for 2 years!

And here’s mine, should you be interested:

My Rainbow Photography:

So …

More on the creative urges and education to come.



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In my last post I alluded to a song I wrote. I just recorded it and uploaded it to YouTube. Here is how I introduce it there:

I attended five colleges and universities* in my day, and I’ve taken courses from a lot of good professors over the years. But the attitude of one of them drove me to write this song. If you have been in a similar situation and you like sarcastic satire, you may like this song.
— Lana

Here is the YouTube link to my song titled “University,” or you can find it on YouTube at

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*one for the BA, one for an immersion program, one for the MA, one for a year’s study abroad, and one for the PhD

Ready to Attend the Graduation of Our Students

Ready to Attend the Graduation of Our Students