Sometimes I read a post on the net that is so preposterous that it shakes me out of my bias and makes me, it just makes me, stand differently, look in a different direction, and finally see the view through a window I had never seen before. Very similar to my wife pointing out how this is the only time of year I can see the sheep in the far pasture. You have to look through the bathroom window and damned if I can’t see little white specks through the poplars and sycamores and river birches.
The post I refer to is one from from Venkatesh Rao’s blog Ribbonfarm and concerns the idea of crash-states. He draws from the idea of ‘crash and reboot’ in software development as a contrast to what we all call ‘life’. Or as Rao puts it:
A crash is fundamentally “life going on” even after you lose predictability and control. A recovery is not resumption of life. Life never stops. Recovery is about regaining predictability and control of an uncontrolled, unpredictable process.
Now comes the hard part. I feel like my classes are in the middle of a crash. I have tried to connect to my classes this semester. Tried to use the tools we have discussed in connected courses and the philosophies of connected learning. The result has been a crash. The more and better the choices I gave my students the more confused they got or the more recalcitrant or the more … absent. I modelled the work myself. Uggghhh. I can’t even begin to catalog all that I tried and all that has happened. Perhaps it suffices to relate just one example–my version of the Google 20% Project.
I designed this Project to be open ended, passion-driven, product agnostic (i.e. not just text, but all manner of made things), equitable because self-initiated from the learner’s own curiosity. I justified it because I wanted there to be at least one way for the learner to gain some control over a life more categorized by downloading the desires of others and re-uploading the echo of those desires than reflecting their own will. I wanted my students to have some freedom to learn and share what they might want to learn and share. The prompt for the project is simplicity itself: make something that expresses an interest, a passion, a question you seek to answer. Share it as a product of some kind. This was to be nothing more than a sophisticated, college-level show-and-tell.
Every week I gave them potential examples of what they might do. A few students began to do the projects, some with real zest. Each class had one or more student models to view as examples. I did one myself by using the seed sharing I wrote about last week as an example. Yet…I still got students approaching me about what they should do. Less than 10% of each class has completed the project. We are entering the last two weeks of the term for completing them. What else can these projects end up being but the same slipshod messes any syllabus assignment would have been as assigned by me?
We are in crash mode. What to do? Rao has some vaguely helpful advice.
You accelerate into the crash. It is one of those counter-intuitive things, like turning into a skid while driving, getting an airplane out of a tailspin by pushing the stick forward instead of back (I think I got that right?), or emptying your lungs when exiting a sinking submarine instead of exiting with a big lungful (the pressure difference can be fatal as you surface otherwise).
Accelerating into a crash helps you regain actual control authority and predictability. If you force a crash into unfolding faster than it naturally wants to, you gain control over it.
What can I do with my students and the Google 20% Project?
I could just ride out the clock and get a “this too shall pass” glazed look on my face all the while blaming others for the crash.
I could rearrange the flowers on the tables of the Hindenberg, kind of a non-sequitur response to cover my own pedagogical ass.
I could try some totally crazy intervention like offering to have conferences with every student to help them find and complete the project on time. Maybe even allow them to come in on any day during their finals week to demo their project, thus giving them more time to hang themselves.
I could go into class and act crazy, blaming them into submission or just telling them to give up and noting I was crazy to have even thought they were anything more than a flock of helpless ‘sheep’le who just needed to be led by the nose and given an occasional smack with my shepherd’s crook.
Rao argues that all of these are possible responses, but they confuse accelerating into the crash with trying to manage it . You cannot manage the crash.
It’s easy to convince yourself you’re doing it when in fact you’re bracing for the crash, trying to get it over with, or wishfully seeking a zero state.
This zero state, this reboot state, this bliss of starting over in a state of grace is only possible in computer software, not life. We live in a world of relative states of crash and burn.
In life and business, crash-only is not a choice but an operating condition, because both are bundles of entrenched habits without on/off switches. Not only are there no kill commands … to forcibly stop behaviors, there is no equivalent to pulling the plug, short of perhaps some sort of controlled brain damage.
What can I do?
Accelerate into the crash, turn into the skid, push the control stick on the plane forward? It is like asking President Obama what he is going to do now as a lame duck with his party in the minority? I would tell him to accelerate into the crash. Do even more executive orders. Push the Senate toward impeaching him. Push ahead by forcing the crash to unfold faster?
But is it ethical to do this in a classroom? Does it reveal what a hopeless zombie the classroom is institutionally? I can only gain control by giving up control? Was the Google 20% Project doomed from the start with hidden agendas and trap doors? Rao is pretty damned Yoda in his ultimate paragraph of advice:
At the moment, the best heuristic I have is this: if a behavior change ( not an event or a single decision) brings you immediate relief from anxiety and makes you busier, but without any immediate material change in the environment, it’s likely a case of accelerating into a crash. Often this means giving up doing certain things you’re used to doing, and giving up your resistance to certain things others want to do (which might cause them considerable surprise).
So, according to Rao, what I need to do is change my behavior in a way that relieves this feeling of failure. I need to be more active and at the same time not give up the project. Previous habits and solutions are not allowed so I must open up to what my students and others might want to do. Surprise might be proof of concept. It’s a crash. What do we have to lose?
I return to the picture above. Rao isn’t giving me an answer to how I can correct and change course, but he surely is providing a promontory from which to stand and look at the field before me. Perhaps I will come up with an answer. More likely I will get an unexpected surprise bubble from the cauldron that rises up and pops. Perhaps from you. Perhaps in a dream. Perhaps not now but later as I reconsider all the various crashes of this semester and how they might be a Oiuja Board with a very different spirit message for my future.
I can really see the sheep from here. Wow. I never knew that.