Blog Post

Awe

I thought I could go the three days of the TechnoTravels HASTAC II conference without blogging, but I have to add to the wonderful liveblogging of others here just to say thank you to the organizers, to the presenters, and for two days that inspire what John Seely Brown, in the videoclip we saw, said should be the goal of all educational enterprises: awe. I, my dear HASTAC friends, am in awe of the conversations, the insights, the excitement, the learning technologies and applications, the research results, the new insights, and the passion for learning and education I'm seeing everywhere, on every level. Thank you!

 

It's not all that often that a musician and sound engineer who is head of technology at one of the major innovative technology universities in the country can be in a room of remixed music, with art cascading off the walls (literally, a gorgeous videoscape, pastoral and passionate), having an intense conversation about cognition and neuroscience with an English teacher, a director of a humanities institute, a computer programmer, and an arts student. The gorgeous medievalist in the pale paisley scarf walked into the conversation and soon we were talking about flows of knowledge in the twelfth century with yet another group of people--and I can't even tell you what fields they are in.

 

It's not all that often that a friend (shout out here to Allison Clark) tells you that she's thinking of starting a research project on the real and still existing digital divide. Erasure of that term from government documents does not erase the problem--and she's inspired to really understand how that divide operates in America today and wants to find other researchers all over the country who want to contribute to a collaborative study. Ambitious and potentially transformative.

 

The point: what an inspiration to be able to step out of the silos of academe, the discourses within discourses, and spend two days imagining the many ways of learning and contributing to those ways even as we are being inspired by them? I was up at 5 am this morning, and it just wasn't jetlag: I was dying to read all the livebloggers who were at some of the sessions I missed because I was watching the mashups on the hyperwall and then watching an extraordinarily beautiful video of a dancers for whom technology was a partner in beauty not a limitation or restriction or constriction (a great metaphor) and then the hilarity of playing a computerized talking drum set . . . oh, those snare drums!

 

What I also liked was reclaiming the Aristotelian and Pythagorean territory of the foundational, traditional realm of the Humanities Writ Large. If it is about how we live on this earth, the tracings we leave, the cultures we create, the arrangements of symbols and the implications of those linguistic and aesthetic markers. . . If it is about justice and truth . . . If it is about the technologies that shape how we interact with others and the world and how we receive the information about that world (abundant, rich, multimedia and also filtered, censored, distorted, etc) . . . If it is about the stories we tell that make our scientific, sociological, psychological, and social journies, well, then, it is humanistic and it is the humanities, the foundational "why" and "how" of all knowledge. As I've said so often in this blog, scientists are trained to experiment, to empirical analysis. But, as Curtis Wong said so eloquently, it is the stories we tell about those experiments and analyses that are crucial, and that, of course, is the realm of the humanities. Interpretation is part of our training, our practice, and our expertise.

 

John Seely Brown said in the video shown by Curtis Wong that "awe" was what he felt when he toured the World Wide Telescope with Curtis. Later, when I talked with Curtis, we talked about how all education, on any level, has to be about that inspiring of curiosity that, in a word, is "awe." When we think of our best teachers, we never think of the ones who trained us on how to achieve the best percentages for this or that kind of multiple choice test, on how you second guess a test to get the best score. We remember the ones who inspired us to think creatively and critically, to engage the world with insatiable curiosity. We remember those teachers (inside the classroom and out) who inspired us to want to know all we could about the world, who inspired us to awe.

 

As I kept eavesdropping on improbable conversations across supposedly incompatible intellectual "domains," I was struck by the casualness of the conversation, as if it were the most natural and common occurrence in the world to converse on this level. I wish it were. But, for now, I'm grateful that in an hour the bus will be leaving for LA, and that I'm almost hoping for a traffic jam so I can hear more of historian Norman Klein's tour of southern California, what cultures and migrations and economic forces created the 405 (did I get the number right?) from Orange County to LA.

As I was thinking about JSB's word "awe," I was also thinking about Caren's question about all that touring via the World Wide Telescope and the Reagan-era memories of Star Wars as a battleplan. Politics is part of knowledge, a crucial part. And humanistic too. Critical thinking is one part of the training we offer to all the other disciplines, again back at least to Aristotle if not to the pre-Socratics. And what I like best is that critical thinking, tough engagement, do not dampen awe. They challenge us so that awe is real and not simply bedazzlement, so that it is good and powerful, not simply fluff or hyperbole or bread and circuses. Magic tricks designed to obscure the manipulations and sleight-of-hand . . . Critical thinking, to my mind, is actually necessary for real awe.

 

One reason to be an educator is to teach critical skills so our students can separate chicanery from inspiration, cheap flash from real brilliance, can appreciate greatness. Critical thinking, in other words, is the opposite of a knee-jerk cynicism.

Technotravels, telemobility. What a trip! (Pun intended.) Thank you, organizers of HASTAC II. Thank you live bloggers for filling us in on what we missed. Thank you speakers and participants for the passion of your work, the toughness of your thinking, and the suppleness of your engagement.

 

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---Photo credit, Brett Walters, Courtesy of Flickr, "Telematic Drum Circle" by Byeong Sam Jeon.

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