In my last post, I went off on my university’s choice for the entering first-year students’ common reading, Kevin Ashton’s How to fly a horse: The secret history of creation, invention, and discovery. I noted that within minutes of my posting, I was off to a meeting at which several of the faculty and staff responsible for overseeing the common reading would talk about ways to lead discussions on the book.

What went down?

Well, a couple of us went off on the book right off the bat, noting our concerns: it’s male-heavy, it essentializes, it gives short shrift to persons of color. My colleague noted her fear that she’d be unable to lead a conversation that didn’t help the students confront these issues by viewing the book through a critical lens. I connected the book to the current social context in which the students would be reading it, one in which black bodies are made the eminent domain of a racist governmental structure. We both agreed that this choice of book might send the wrong message to incoming students, in particular incoming students of color.

Bring on the critical lenses, another couple of colleagues responded. Mathilde, for whom I’ve got insuperable respect, heard our concerns, and I believe she really heard them. She welcomed any approaches we might want to take to help the students to engage the book critically. Indeed, she noted, getting them to think critically on Day One (actually, Day Negative One, since these discussions will fall on the penultimate day of summer break) is one of our primary aims.

Other aims? To help the students to own creativity, to disabuse them of any notion they might have that they are entitled to success without work, and to introduce them to the ideas of grit and resilience.

For the next forty-five minutes or so we talked about ways in which we planned to approach the text when we met with students, beginning to compile our ideas in a Google Doc. Mathilde shared some quotes she pulled from the text, which she planned to use as the basis for small-group discussions. Candace offered a blend of reflective writing and philosophical chairs. I promised to include a few words on a “quiet conversations” exercise that I’ve used in 478 with some success. In this activity, students, after the opportunity to reflect individually and share their initial ideas in small groups, enter into a quiet conversation with the rest of the class, taking turns writing brief comments in a common location (e.g., a whiteboard) and responding to one another’s comments in turn.

To get these quiet conversations going, I’ve pulled a few quotes from the text:

  1. “But time is the great equalizer, the same for all: twenty-four hours every day, seven days every week, every life a length unknown, for richest and poorest and all in between” (pp. 24-25). I’ve already commented (in my previous post) on this statement.
  2. “Research into brainstorming has a clear conclusion. The best way to create is to work alone and evaluate solutions as they occur…Steve Wozniak…offers the same advice: ‘Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team’” (pp. 51-52). Now that’s a great way to adopt a broad perspective and accurately anticipate your work’s shortcomings.
  3. “No makes us aloof, boring, impolite, unfriendly, selfish, antisocial, uncaring, lonely, and an arsenal of other insults. But no is the button that keeps us on” (p. 72). I’m curious to see where students take this…to me, self-care (a notion that’s grounded in tremendous privilege, by the way) notwithstanding, it sounds like the title of the first chapter of How To Be an Asshole.
  4. “The highly creative children [in Getzels and Jackson’s study] were funnier, more playful, less predictable, and less conventional than the high-IQ children. This was no surprise. The surprise was the teachers: they liked the high-IQ children, but they did not like the creative children” (p. 84). Aside from Ashton’s seeming acceptance of the validity of IQ as a measure of giftedness, I like this quote, and I’m curious what Honors students might have to say about it.
  5. “Sexism and racism are famous prejudices. The bias against new is not” (p. 87). Though there have been exceptions, new ideas don’t typically lead to their progenitors’ rape, murder, enslavement, and/or extermination.
  6. “Never have a failure in public that you could have in private. Private failures are faster, cheaper, and less painful” (p. 89). Though rarely do we grow so much from them.
  7. “So, do better tools always lead to a better life? Does making better things always make things better? How can we be sure that making things better won’t make things worse?” (p. 156) I actually like this question, though I don’t much care for Ashton’s answer to it.
  8. “The answer to invention’s problems is not less invention, but more…New solutions beget new problems, which beget new solutions. This is the cycle of our species. We will always make things better. We will never make them best. We should not expect to anticipate all the consequences of our creations, or even most of them, good or bad” (p. 162). I can’t even, with this unapologetic futurist with a truly twisted teleology. (And yes, I really did just want to write the words “truly twisted teleology.”)
  9. “Whatever your higher power, whether God, Allah, Jehovah, Buddha, or the greater good of humanity, this is whom you serve when you commit to a life of creation. What is diabolical is squandering your talents. We sell our soul when we waste our time. We drive neither ourselves nor our world forward if we choose idling over inventing” (p. 176). Because, as we all know, the secret to productivity is ceaseless toil…has anyone ever made a more Protestant statement than this one?
  10. “Cook to eat, not to serve” (p. 180). Nothing like a little selfishness and misanthropy to make the world a brighter place.
  11. “The circumstances forced on Kelly Johnson seemed adverse, but turned out to be fortuitous — he discovered that a small, isolated, highly motivated group is the best kind of team for creation” (p. 195). Cf. the quote from pp. 51-52 above…though, as with that quote: it’ll be a better world for all if we keep apart from one another, don’t share ideas, and fail to give a tinker’s dam about others’ perspectives.

Whew. I’m definitely not going to use all of these; likely no more than four or five. Regardless of which ones I pick, they’ll lead to some good discussions.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the world and me. Wow. Just…wow. Unflinching. Raw. What hits me hardest is the fact that though he and I are almost exactly the same age, the America he grew up in (black Baltimore) might as well be Mars, so different is it from the America I grew up in (mostly-white Helena, Montana). Toni Morrison’s right in saying that Coates picks up where James Baldwin left off. However, I agree with my colleagues in yesterday’s meeting, too, when they pointed out that this book would have been a poor choice for a common reading, if only because a one-hour conversation two days before the semester begins would offer utterly insufficient time to unpack Coates, especially given the fact that the world he and his son (whom he addresses in the book) is one that’s alien to the vast majority of our students.



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