Navigating the corridor of inquiry

It’s not often that I have an Aha! moment reading an academic article. Many have significant flaws and many of the best repeat what’s been said many times before. But I had a very different reaction to Patricia M. Shields’sPragmatism as a Philosophy of Science: A Tool for Public Administration.”

The paper shows how pragmatism as a philosophy of science is used in a research methods class. The course includes guides to writing an empirical capstone project, such as steps to follow, the notebook method, and the classification of conceptual frameworks.  But what makes it special is the explication of these in terms of their roots in the ideas of Peirce, Dewey, and James.

She quotes from William James (1904), who writes about the relation of pragmatism to theories:

Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work…

All these [theories], you see, are anti-intellectualist tendencies… [pragmatism] stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method. As the young Italian pragmatist Papini has well said, it lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next some one on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.

The paper accomplishes four major feats. First, it serves as an excellent introduction to pragmatism, articulating it in terms of actual experience and concrete action in the world, as pragmatists would have it. Second, it offers a way of thinking about research, which can help anyone who struggles with the relation between theory and practice, or gets stuck in dichotomies such as quantitative/qualitative. It show how theories can come alive, be unstiffened, so that they can help us make sense of experience without overconstraining. Third, the paper describes a creative use of an institutional repository, which helps students enter into a community of inquiry. See, for example, the excellent paper by Robert Brom (2000), Workplace diversity training: A pragmatic look at an administrative practice. Finally, it does a fine job of doing what it sets out to do, to describe the process of designing an excellent approach to a research methods or capstone course.

References

Brom, Robert A. (2000). Workplace diversity training: A pragmatic look at an administrative practice. Applied Research Projects. Paper 91.

James, William (1904, December). What is Pragmatism. From series of eight lectures dedicated to the memory of John Stuart Mill, A new name for some old ways of thinking, from William James, Writings 1902-1920. The Library of America

Shields, Patricia M. (1998). Pragmatism as a philosophy of science: A tool for public administration. Faculty Publications-Political Science. Paper 33.

Libraries for netroots activists?

Netroots is a term that describes political activism organized through blogs, wikis, social network services, and other online media. Jerome Armstrong used it first in Netroots for Howard Dean (2002) on MyDD.

The netroots can be a powerful alternative to traditional media and organizations. Often though, the change that activists promote never happens, can’t be sustained, or can’t scale. Netroots talk doesn’t always lead to action.

It may seem to strange to turn to libraries as a solution. Aren’t libraries all about books and old stuff, not the new participatory culture of the net? Aren’t they determinably neutral, both unwilling and unable to engage with the kinds of change activists seek?

In fact, libraries already play a crucial role to support activism of various kinds. And they’re already deeply entangled both with how we go online and with how we find what’s not available there. They’re not only a supplement to the netroots, but a necessary resource to bring netroots activism to life.

If you go to any public library in the US at opening time, you’ll see a group of people waiting to enter. They’re of all ages, ethnicities, and genders, dressed in formal business attire, sports clothes, or old rags. Some may be waiting to check out a book or video, but most are waiting to go online to read their mail, connect with friends, check the news, hunt for a job or apartment, shop, book travel, or do any of the many other functions that reveal how much the net has infiltrated our lives. For them, the library is the face of the net, and the only, or at least the best, way of connecting with it.

Moreover, libraries can provide substantive data, e.g., on the climate, business trends, local history, political processes, art, and more, which is not always available online; text resources, including books, journals, magazines; videos and software; and repositories or archives of local activities. They also offer meeting spaces, and sustainable local points of contact. These resources can expand enormously the knowledge base for netroots activism, something that can turn strongly held views into evidence-based arguments and uncover duplicity in corporate or government bodies.

Libraries also offer reference services, which is important since the deep web holds several orders of magnitude more information than the surface web, and non-web information is much more than that. Libraries also offer instruction on accessing all of these resources, data, and services.

Beyond finding information, libraries increasingly offer opportunities to create and house community-designed or collected resources. For example, a collaboration between Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS) in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and the Newberry Library in Chicago led to a student-curated Puerto Rican history exhibit at the Newberry: Puerto Rican History through the Eyes of Others.

As a means of finding information and tools, a venue for creating resources, a place to learn, and access in the first place, libraries can help turn netroots talk about activism into real action in the world. Of course, most libraries are devoted to principles of open access for all. As a result, what they offer is available to groups large and small, but also to groups on opposing sides of an issue. This means that despite all the power and innovation of the net, much of the action is still, if not increasingly, found in the library.

Inquiring and acting

John Dewey makes an interesting distinction between understanding and information:

An individual may know all about the structure of an automobile, may be able to name all the parts of the machine and tell what they are there for. But he does not understand the machine unless he knows how it works and how to work it; and, if it doesn’t work right, what to do in order to make it work right…Understanding has to be in terms of how things work and how to do things. Understanding, by its very nature, is related to action; just as information, by its very nature, is isolated from action or connected with it only here and there by accident. (Dewey, 1937, p. 184)

If we line up “how things work” with inquiry and “how to do things” with action, we have a good summary of the Youth Community Informatics activity guide, Community as Curriculum. It’s set up with units on Youth as Inquirer and Youth as Activist.

An example might be to study the problem of alcoholism in your community (Inquirer), then make a book about it, such as This is the Real Me (Activist). Several thoughts occur to me:

  • The inquire/act distinction is not absolute; it’s hard to come up with a good example in which the two roles are not blended and mutually supportive. But it can still be useful for reflecting on our work, and thinking about future directions for community informatics.
  • The Inquirer part goes well beyond what usually happens in school in terms of relevance, connectedness, community base, and so on. But the Activist part rarely happens at all.
  • Much of the research in social informatics, and even community informatics, which studies community use of ICTs, digital divide, or demographic patterns, tends to “name all the parts of the machine and tell what they are there for.” That can be useful, just as it would be for an automobile.
  • But, if we seek understanding in Dewey’s sense, we need more of a community inquiry approach.

References

Dewey, John (1937). The challenge of democracy to education. In The collected works of John Dewey, 1882-1953. Electronic edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953. Volume 11: 1935-1937, Essays, Liberalism and Social Action. [First published (February 1937) in Progressive Education 14, 79-85, from a transcript of an address on November 13, 1936 at the Eastern States Regional Cnference of the Progressive Education Association in New York City.]

Inquiry-based community engagement

Melissa Pognon just alerted me to an interesting article by David Low, on university-community engagement. It presents a dialogical, or inquiry-based, view of engagement, drawing from communication theory and Perice’s theory of inquiry. Low emphasizes that

we do not ‘transfer’ or ‘transmit’ knowledge between social systems, but, rather, we engage a method that enables the recognition of a shared object of enquiry – its entelechy (Nicholls 2000) (p. 108).

This shared enquiry must not only tolerate dissent or difference, it actually depends on dissent to function at all. Such a view is radically different from the dominant university discourse around topics such as “knowledge transfer,” “public outreach,” or “service learning.”

Low writes,

without a method to nurture and reveal dissent, universities would be unable to even recognise different ways of being in the world, and enquiry would be rendered impossible (Hawes 1999, p. 235) (p. 111).

I find myself drawn initially to 2×2 tables such as the one Low presents in his grid-group, then later becoming frustrated with all that they obscure as well as reveal. But the article as a whole has many useful insights.

References

Hawes, L. (1999). The dialogics of conversation: Power, control, vulnerability. Communication Theory, 9(3), 229–264.

Low, David (2008). University-community engagement: A grid-group analysis. Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement, 1, 107-127.

Nicholls, A. (2000, September). The secularization of revelation from Plato to Freud. Contretemps, 1, 62–70.

Peirce, Charles S. (1877, November). The fixation of belief. Popular Science Monthly, 12, 1-15.

Outside lies magic, Part 1

Gesa Kirsch recently pointed me to John R. Stilgoe’s, Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. It’s a refreshing call for becoming more aware of the ordinary world around us. Stilgoe urges us not only to walk or cycle more, but also to use the advantages of those modes of transport to see the world that we usually ignore.

I finished the book, and am writing now, in the antipode of his call to walk and observe. I’m cramped in an airplane seat near the end of a four and a half hour flight. Stilgoe would say that I should still take the opportunity to observe, to learn, and to make sense of my surrounding, but instead I’m counting down the minutes until we land.

The chapters—Beginnings, Lines, Mall, Strips, Interstate, Enclosures, Main Street, Stops, Endings—lie somewhere between prose poems, history lessons, and sermons about the everyday. They remind me of John McDermott’s summary that John Dewey “believed that ordinary experience is seeded with possibilities for surprises and possibilities for enhancement if we but allow it to bathe over us in its own terms” (1973/1981, p. x).

To appreciate the book, you need to follow Stilgoe as he discovers nature, history, urban planning, ethics, social class, and more through cracks in the pavement, vegetation, telephone poles, roadside motels, angle parking, and other seemingly forgettable objects. The real point is not his own findings, but the demonstration that slowing down to look can open up worlds of understanding.

He shows the value of a camera, despite the lament that “ordinary American landscape strikes almost no one as photogenic” (p. 179). He recognizes the dread of causal photography (‘why are you photographing that vacant lot?’), but ties it to “deepening ignorance” (p. 181). This ignorance makes asking directions dangerous: People question us back, ‘Why do you want to know?’

Stilgoe says, “discovering the bits and pieces of peculiar, idiosyncratic importance in ordinary metropolitan landscape scrapes away the deep veneer of programmed learning” (p. 184). Unprogrammed exercise and discovery leads to a unified whole that reorients the mind and the body together. Someone else may own the real estate, but “the explorer owns the landscape” (p. 187).

Stilgoe’s prescription is simple:

Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention.
So read this book, then go.
Go without purpose.
Go for the going.

See Outside lies magic, Part 2.

References

  • McDermott, John J. (1981). The philosophy of John Dewey: Two volumes in one. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Originally published 1973)
  • Stilgoe, John R. (1998). Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. New York: Walker.

Youth planners in Richmond, CA

I was fortunate to have a visit with youth planners at the Kennedy High School in Richmond, CA on Wednesday this week. These were students studying their own community and developing plans to improve it. They’ll be presenting these plans to the Mayor next month.

What I saw is part of Y-PLAN (Youth — Plan, Learn, Act, Now), a city planning program run by UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities & Schools. Deborah McKoy is the creator of Y-PLAN and the center’s founder and executive director.

Sarah Van Wart from the UC Berkeley I School was my guide. She and two undergrads, Arturo and Sarir had been leading the high school students in a community planning exercise. They first examined their current situation, using dialogue, photos, and data. They then considered alternatives and how those might apply to a planned urban development project.

The development will include schools, housing, a park, and community center, but the questions for city planners, include “How should these be designed?” “How can they be connected?” “How can they be made safe, useful, and aesthetically pleasing?”

On the day I visited, the youth had already developed general ideas on what they’d like to see in the development. Now they were to make these ideas more concrete through 3-D modeling. Using clay, toothpicks, construction paper, dried algae, stickers, variously colored small rocks, and other objects, they constructed scale models of the 30 square block development. One resource they had was contact sheets of photos of other urban environments. They could select from those to include as examples to emulate or to avoid.

I was impressed with the dedication and skill of the leaders of the project, including also the teacher, Mr. G. But the most striking thing was how engaged the young people were. I heard some healthy arguing about design, but I didn’t see the disaffection that is so common some high schools today.

My only regret is that I wasn’t able to follow the process from beginning to end. But from the rich, albeit limited, glimpse I had, the project is an excellent way to engage young people in their own communities, to use multimedia for learning and action in the world, and to learn how to work together on meaningful tasks. It’s a good example of community inquiry.

Sara Bernard has a more detailed article on the project on Edutopia, which includes an audio slide show:

Audio slide show: Putting Schools on the Map Slide Show
Putting Schools on the Map

References

Bernard, Sara (2008, October). Mapping their futures: Kids foster school-community connections.

Bierbaum, Ariel H., & McKoy, Deborah L. (2008, Spring). Y-PLAN: A tool for engaging youth and schools in planning for the future of their communities. IMPACT: A Multidisciplinary Journal Addressing the Issues of Urban Youth, 2(1).

McKoy, Deborah, & Vincent, J. 2007. Engaging schools in urban revitalization: The Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan, Learn, Act, Now). Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26, 389-403.

Coffee Party USA

I met recently with someone who’s played a major role in starting Coffee Party USA. It’s a promising idea, one which provides at least some counter to the vicious, self-serving, and dogmatic rhetoric we hear so often in other arenas. I’ll be interested to see how it develops.

Coffee Party USA includes online forums and Facebook. On Saturday, the First National Coffee Day was launched in 350+ coffee shops in 44 States. The group

…aims to reinvigorate the public sphere, drawing from diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives, …[believing] that faithful deliberation from multiple vantage points is the best way to achieve the common good…

We are 100% grassroots. No lobbyists here. No pundits. And no hyper-partisan strategists calling the shots in this movement. We are a spontaneous and collective expression of our desire to forge a culture of civic engagement that is solution-oriented, not blame-oriented.

We demand a government that responds to the needs of the majority of its citizens as expressed by our votes and by our voices; NOT corporate interests as expressed by misleading advertisements and campaign contributions.

Juanita Goggins

[Note: This post was written five months ago, but I must have forgotten to click “publish”. I’d like to have it on the blog, even though her death is now old news, if only to help record a courageous life.]

I was saddened to learn about the lonely death of Juanita Goggins, a great leader and educator. Her life is a reminder of both the possibilities we have and the great challenges we still face around race in America.

Goggins was the daughter of a sharecropper in rural South Carolina, the youngest of 10 children, and the only one to earn a four-year college degree, from what was then all-black South Carolina State College. She taught in South Carolina’s segregated schools, and then went on to a number of major achievements.

In 1972, she became the first black woman to represent the state as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Two years later, she became the first black woman appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the first black woman elected to the South Carolina Legislature. She was responsible for funding sickle-cell anemia testing in county health departments and sponsored key legislation on school funding, kindergarten, and class size.

One indication of the world she had to navigate was the Orangeburg Massacre. In February, 1968, students from Goggins’s alma mater attempted to bowl at Charlotte’s only bowling alley. The owner refused. Tensions rose and two days later violence erupted. The Orangeburg Massacre resulted in injury to 28 students and the death of three.

Sadly, by the early 1980’s, Goggins had developed mental illness and in later life became increasingly reclusive. She froze to death at age 75, living alone in a rented house not far from the Statehouse in Charlotte, where she had served.

See Once-revered lawmaker freezes to death alone (Associated Press, March 10, 2010).

My retirement plans

It’s with satisfaction, relief, anticipation, and a tinge of sadness, that I submitted my intention to retire in August of this year. I will have been with the University of Illinois for twenty years, half of those in the College of Education and half in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. The retirement means that I’ll be changing my mode of work, with more attention to writing and more international projects.

I’ve enjoyed and benefitted greatly from my time here, and even more from working with you all. I can’t think of another group anywhere with such high collegiality, dedication, moral perception, and responsible leadership. The scholarship, teaching, and learning have always been outstanding and there’s been a lot of fun on top of it all.

I expect to continue working part-time on the Youth Community Informatics and Community Informatics Corps grants through June, 2011, and perhaps do other work after that, so this is not a good-bye, just an announcement about a new role for me.

Best wishes and enjoy all the snow,

Chip

Evangelicals attack Voudo practitioners in Haiti

As if people in Haiti haven’t faced enough problems already, Christians, many from outside Haiti, have begun attacking people there who are simply praying or singing.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Angry crowds in a seaside slum attacked a group of Voodoo practitioners Tuesday, pelting them with rocks and halting a ceremony meant to honour victims of last month’s deadly earthquake.

Voodooists gathered in Cite Soleil where thousands of quake survivors live in tents and depend on food aid. Praying and singing, the group was trying to conjure spirits to guide lost souls when a crowd of Evangelicals started shouting. Some threw rocks while others urinated on Voodoo symbols. When police left, the crowd destroyed the altars and Voodoo offerings of food and rum.

Some groups use an interesting method to convince Haitians to abandon their beliefs. Quoted in the same article, Pastor Frank Amedia of Miami-based Touch Heaven Ministries says:

“We would give food to the needy in the short term but if they refused to give up Voodoo, I’m not sure we would continue to support them in the long term because we wouldn’t want to perpetuate that practice. We equate it with witchcraft, which is contrary to the Gospel.”

Does this mean that pelting worshipers with rocks, urinating on their sacred symbols, and withholding food from hungry people is the modern Christian way? Aren’t those acts themselves “contrary to the Gospel”? Why do outsiders, in this case mostly Americans, think that violence is the path to rebuilding a nation? When will we learn that acting responsibly in the world doesn’t mean insisting that we are always right and that our way is the only way?

See the photo in the Associated Press report at Voodooists attacked at ceremony for Haiti victims.