The Lykovs of Taiga

Thanks to Tim Tangherlini for the link to the [Smithsonian story on the Lykov family][] of Russia who survived for forty years in Siberia without contact with civilization — they had fled deep into the forest to escape anti-religious pogroms by the Soviets. A nice addition to the story is the [Russian documentary on the Lykovs][]. In a sense the Lykovs were a kind of time capsule.

[Smithsonian story on the Lykov family]:
[Russian documentary on the Lykovs]:

The Triad

Yung-Hsing Wu and I have an ongoing dialogue about the nature of academic work. I guess *academic* is as good an adjective for it as any, and has a bit more fit here for reasons discussed below, but all *academic* does is to locate work which might just as well be described as *scholarly* work, *scientific* work, or *intellectual* work.

*Academic* works well here because our conversations are so often in relation to our students, both undergraduate and graduate. Say what you will about apprentices, but as someone who has been to gym meets for girls early in their training, I can assure you that nothing reveals the long road to mastery than someone who is just setting out. The fact of the matter is that thinking well and communicating your thoughts effectively are hard and they take time just to claim competence, let alone mastery. (That is, I ain’t making any claims for myself beyond baseline competence. Nah ah. Not me.)

We regularly re-discover just how hard some little bit of analysis or communication is when we find a student or group of students or a class of students, just misses the grab for the next ring and lands with the full force of a metaphorical flop on the gym mat of this conceit.

One thing we have noticed is that this business of thinking has several levels, and so lessons hard won at one level — about organization of materials in both research and communication — are not necessarily applied at the next level. That is, we are often surprised to see advanced students make the same kinds of mistakes as beginning less advanced writers as the scope of a task increases.

This probably comes as no surprise to faculty who regularly advise students on dissertations. Perhaps the disjuncture between the dissertation and previous projects is more obvious than we realize. The freshman essay has something of an obvious path to the term paper, and the term paper would seem to prepare many graduate students for the seminar paper, but this path somehow doubles back on itself when it comes time to the master’s thesis or the dissertation. (Making the move from seminar paper to research article is for another time, and something Yung-Hsing has thought about more than I.)

And so writers you know are also scolding their freshman in the morning about the lack of organization, about the lack of a clearcut argument, about the paucity of evidence in their 2000 or 3000-word essays are later in the afternoon committing the same errors in their 50,000 or 75-000 word manuscripts. It’s an interesting phenomenon to observe.

But we have, over the course of our conversations also noticed something else that we find curious and worth thinking a bit more about, and that is that there are probably three modes, or three distinct kinds of action, in which thinkers regularly engage and being able to do all three of them is really the key to success: research, analyze, communicate.



There is a couple of reasons we find this model, or description, of academic work compelling — and we are going to stick with *academic* for the time being because that is where we are located and it is also the location to which are graduate students aspire.

First, we think it successfully captures a division of labor which most academics would recognize. Most of us recognize that there is a distinction in our time between gathering data and/or information and then thinking about what you have gathered. Sometimes, especially when you are a literary scholar working closely with a small number of texts, the dynamic can be so tightly coupled that we might be hard pressed to distinguish the two activities, but the difference between reading a passage and then trying to break that passage up into something else beside what it is is present in the work itself.

We also think, and this is where the most recent conversation really began, that the division captures the strengths and weaknesses of many scholars, or certain of their texts, that we already know. Both of us have had students, known colleagues, or read the work of others that seemed to us to reveal that a particular individual had an aptitude or affinity for one activity over the others. There is the student who is an incredibly good researcher but is unwilling, or unable, to see the larger patterns that all the data she has gathered might actually possess — just the other day, in fact, a colleague and I were discussing the work of a well-regarded scholar in our field, whom we both admire, who is an encyclopedist by nature: his work offers only the barest of syntheses and the prose in which he conveys his elaborate, and awe-inspiring, organization of a difficult and diffuse topic, is labored at best.

There is, too, the scholar who is a brilliant analyst, but the data upon which he or she draws is incredibly thin. And, perhaps it goes without saying, the brilliant analyst whose strength does not lie in research is also an effective communicator.

*Communication* is, we think, one place where we are struck by the number of avenues, or fora, available to researchers and analysts. This fact is perhaps made more concrete for us by dint of our being located at a public university which weights, at least ostensibly, teaching and publishing equally. What this means in practice is that each faculty member has some freedom to pursue the fora in which they are most comfortable to communicate. For some, their best work lies in their teaching. They publish a few things, and that is good enough. For some, their best work lies in their writing, and they muddle through teaching as best they can. The teachers among us do their best thinking outloud, in the presence of others, and communicate best orally where sometimes you can allow multiple ideas to hang in their simultaneously before drawing a conclusion. The writers among us do their best thinking withdrawn from the world or in the company of a select few.

The writers who struggle least with writing think in words, but there are other kinds of thinkers — those who think in diagrams, those who think in three-dimensional spaces, those who think in terms of parallel patterns and resonances, like musical chords. Sometimes those thinkers end up in professions where they can apply those ideas in a very practicable way, but there are other thinkers who end up a bit out of place: they are spatial thinkers who are so in love with words that they pursue advanced research in literature or linguistics despite the number of warnings, both internal and external, that the path will not be an easy one.

The fact is we want all those thinkers among us, but finding an institutional home is harder than it looks, if only because we are still encased within bureaucratic schema from a previous era that felt things worked best when labor was divided and not pooled. How such a pool might work out for the academy is not something we have seen discussed anywhere, and we are curious to know if anyone has encountered either the idea or the practice in a way that they found compelling.

Huston on Bogart

Himself, he never took too seriously—his work most seriously. He regarded the somewhat gaudy figure of Bogart, the star, with an amused cynicism; Bogart, the actor, he held in deep respect…In each of the fountains at Versailles there is a pike which keeps all the carp active; otherwise they would grow overfat and die. Bogie took rare delight in performing a similar duty in the fountains of Hollywood. Yet his victims seldom bore him any malice, and when they did, not for long. His shafts were fashioned only to stick into the outer layer of complacency, and not to penetrate through to the regions of the spirit where real injuries are done…He is quite irreplaceable. There will never be another like him.

— from John Huston’s eulogy for Humphrey Bogart

Because, Just Because

Star Wars ATAT

I have always loved cutaway diagrams. (I suppose I was an early enthusiast of visualizations.) As a kid, I would make drawings of both the external appearance of a machine or building as well as the occasional internal plan or profile. Cutaways like this fascinated me. The artists who created them were like magicians to me.

UPDATE: My apologies for the first version of this image not being enlargeable. You can now click on the image to embiggen it.

Cleaning Up

Me: “How is the clean up coming along?”

My daughter: “Good.”

Me: “What are you doing?”

My daughter: “I’m trying to get the dampness out of the towel.”

I really wonder what the percentage is of parents in mental hospitals.

LinkedIn Network Visualization

[LinkedIn][] now offers to visualize your professional networks. A brief glimpse of mine reveals that the components are, themselves, heterogenous:

My LinkedIn Network

That is, the components are fairly mixed, which, I guess, reveals that a number of people with whom I’ve connected on LinkedIn are themselves involved in a number of communities. The only clear standouts here are my colleagues in folklore studies across the nation. Perhaps the upshot of this is that I have too many local connections and too few national? Or that a number of the national and international scholars don’t participate in LinkedIn, which I think is equally true, especially among my colleagues in network studies, quantitative analysis in the humanities, and computational folklore. Most of them are on Twitter. Interesting split.

[Daniel McLaren has a nice write-up][dm] about downloading your LinkedIn information in a JSON file and then using Protoviz to do improve the visualization. (His principle edit was to remove himself from the center of the graph.)


NLTK and Stopwords

I spent some time this morning playing with various features of the Python NLTK, trying to think about how much, if any, I wanted to use it with my freshmen. (More on this in a moment.) I loaded in a short story text that we have read, and running it through various functions that the NLTK makes possible when I ran into a hiccup:

[code lang=text]
>>> text.collocations()
Building collocations list
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
packages/nltk/", line 341, in collocations
ignored_words = stopwords.words('english')
packages/nltk/corpus/", line 68, in __getattr__
packages/nltk/corpus/", line 56, in __load
except LookupError: raise e
Resource 'corpora/stopwords' not found. Please use the NLTK
Downloader to obtain the resource: >>>
Searched in:
– '/usr/share/nltk'
– '/Users/john/nltk_data'
– '/usr/share/nltk_data'
– '/usr/local/share/nltk_data'
– '/usr/lib/nltk_data'
– '/usr/local/lib/nltk_data'

Now, the nice thing is that all you have to do is follow the directions, entering in the IDLE prompt, and you get:

[code lang=text]
showing info

which provides the following window:

Screen Shot 2013-01-26 at 09.08.15

Clicking on the Corpora tab and scrolling down allows you to download the stopword list:

Screen Shot 2013-01-26 at 09.08.43

What I have not yet figured out is how to specify your own stopword list. Part of what I want to teach any of my students is that choosing what words are important and what words are not are a matter of subject matter expertise and thus something they should not turn over to someone else to do.

The Nature of Academic Work

[Scott Weingart][] caught [this post][] addressed, ostensibly, to the brilliant undergraduate who finds him or herself considering pursuit of the PhD. The post is worth reading in its entirety, though it does seem to be fairly well inflected by the British academy experience, but I found its summation of the nature of academic work compelling:

> Academia does have the advantage that hours are often a lot more flexible than in the business world; it’s quite often possible and even expected to work at times that suit you, your metabolism, your external commitments etc rather than having to be present at a physical place of business 9-5 Monday to Friday. But the sheer volume of work is, well, not just enormous but essentially unlimited. The thing about not having any specific goals is that you can never really say that you’ve “done” a task, so you keep going.

Both my wife and I find ourselves constantly gritting our teeth when friends, and still some family members, say to us things like “You’re off now, right? When do you go back to work?” No matter how much you try to drop hints about the nature of academic work, like, say, as the end of the fall semester approaches and the Christmas break looms, you announce things like, “Oh, it’s going to be so good to get back to work. I’m really looking forward to digging back into that project I had to put on hold during the semester.” No matter. Friends and family somehow just don’t pick up on it. Even friends and family who themselves spend a lot of times at their desks, who dread going to meetings themselves, who dread the high level of bureaucracy that every large organization spins up and with which it ensnares its unsuspecting, and usually unwilling, congregants. Doesn’t matter. I’ve even tried comparing classes to meetings. They can be productive, but unless your business is to hold meetings, it’s still not what you do.

In our case, 40 percent of our business is, in effect, holding meetings. Another 20 percent is a mix of meetings and thinking: the academy calls this service. But the remaining 40 percent of our jobs, and the part that actually nets us advancement is creating knowledge and communicating it effectively. And that’s what we are doing sometimes when you see us wander outside in the middle of the day, looking puzzled at the big ball of light up in the sky: we have been deeply immersed, and I use that word purposefully in light of other recent posts, in trying to figure something out.

[Scott Weingart]:
[this post]:

Raising a World Builder

In the car this morning on the way to school I commented to my daughter that the rain had made driving a bit more difficult than usual and that I would have to make sure to keep two hands on the wheel. It was, for me in that moment, simply a metonym for paying attention, and, I confess, a way of letting my daughter know that her dad may not be paying as close attention to our conversation as we both often enjoy. We have, over the years of our morning commute that gets her to school and me to work, enjoyed a wide variety of conversations, and sometimes they run sufficiently wild, especially at her end, that I have to remind her, as a way of reminding myself, that driving is the highest priority.

A little too often my reminder really comes out more as a chide, which I always regret, unless of course she simply performs some conversational judo on it, which she did, by responding, “What if you had three hands?” Her first thought was that I could drive and wave to drivers nearby, but quickly she spun the idea out into a variety of possibilities before settling down into playing a variety of instruments with three hands: there was a three-handed piano piece, then a three-handed guitar melody, and then a three-handed trumpet call. The sounds grew wilder, weirder and her laughter built from giggles to squeals.

Her first move displayed the power of divergent thinking, something which has been explored quite a bit over the past few decades in creativity studies, but her next move was to dwell in a particular domain, to immerse herself in a world, and to play with the possibilities there. For the time being, I would like to call that immersive thinking. It is surely related to that kind of thinking that we sometimes call rich mode or right brain thinking, but I am not sure how.1

World-building is like a reflex action for my daughter. From the time she could speak, she spun out stories. She usually enacts the stories, dramatizing them with props and costuming if she is a character or animating a wide variety of objects, some of them more obviously meant for such use and others not. I can’t, for example, count the number of times objects at restaurant tables have come to life and led complex, social lives when adult conversation became uninteresting to her. My wife and I have seen utensils be sisters, salt and pepper shakers be parents, and a tented napkin become a home.

It’s an amazing thing to watch, but as many creative individuals know, such an ability does not come without its penalties. While her school has labeled her a “deep creative,” they really have been unable to come up with a plan on how to make a space within which she can learn and grow to suit her own abilities and interests. Don’t get me wrong: she does well in school, but that’s largely because we have lobbied hard at home for her to adapt to the regimen at school. And so she gets high marks but those marks are regularly accompanied by comments from, well-meaning and really nice, teachers that she does not pay attention as well as she should, that she is “daydreamy” or that “sometimes she just phones it in.”

One could perhaps fault the teachers, but I rarely find individuals are the problem in these circumstances. More often a system is at work. In this case, I think it’s fair to blame a larger educational ideology that has come to rely upon standardized tests as one of its central metrics. In a moment that resembles the classical economics parables about unintended consequences, what we are facing as parents, as the paroxysms of our own child, is an entire educational system which many believe is headed precisely in the wrong direction for what looks like reasonable, well, reasons.

Indeed, an entire cluster of industries have arisen around the wobbling of the educational infrastructure in our country. The technorati favor two flavors that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first flavor is that articulated by Ken Robinson who argues that our schools are stuck in the industrial age, anxiously trying to turn out uniform widgets in a moment where standardization couldn’t be less useful — the assumption being that things are changing more quickly and more predictably than ever. I don’t subscribe fully to this latter notion, but it’s not hard to see that the current context for businesses favors only a few large incumbents with stability, but employment with those incumbents, as two decades of layoffs and jobs moving from one part of the world to another have provied, is not stable. In other words, institutions have stability, but only individuals at the top of those institutions get to enjoy the fruits of that stability.

Outside of those narrow mountaintop retreats, there’s a whole host of changes taking place as industries transform in the face of an amazing amount of computing power. My own industry, higher education, is facing such a transition, but think about even the way manufacturing is changing as building components becomes less about removing metal by mill and lathe work or stamping and cutting but more about “printing” them by building up a part molecule by molecule. Suddenly, economies of scale matter less and sheer imagination matters more. (Well, you’ll still need quite a bit of capital to have such a “printer” at your disposal, but that’s a return to a history we have seen already — i.e., the original printing press!)

We are, we thought, paying the difference between a public school education with two dozen kids in a classroom and a private school education with only a dozen kids in a classroom as a way of giving our daughter’s particular abilities, and inabilities, greater attention. She needs to adjust to the conventions of the world, but as the world itself seeks to explore differences more for the value those differences contribute, we think there is also a place for her differences within any given curriculum. (More on this difference between a teacher-centered and a student-centered pedagogy another time.)

Here’s the short of it: our daughter is a geek.

She has all the classic geek traits: she prefers to be fully immersed in a problem or project or world and she oscillates between wanting external affirmation for her accomplishments and not caring what others think. Most geeks I know are like this. Many of them truly believe they don’t need anyone’s approval, and for a few of them that may very well be true. I also know, speaking as a geek (I think) myself, that, yes, sometimes a nod from someone you respect is not only all you need, but it is something you really want.

A lot of curricula which have high geek probabilities have switched to more project-oriented pedagogies. We are seeing more of it engineering, and it has always been a prominent part of architecture. I’m less sure of it in the sciences, but the sciences have always had really cool laboratories and other kinds of experiences at the upper levels — plus their upper-level ranks thin out and they can spend more time one-on-one with the students. (Some of it comes down to self-selection: people often find the curricula which suits their own learning preferences. More on this later, too.)

But what to do with our little geek, our world builder?

She wants to do well, but she can’t when the system is rigged to work against the way she thinks, the way she processes information. Let me give an example from recent experience — and it’s not to pick on any one teacher — but it grabbed my imagination and I think it provides a useful contrast:

Our daughter is in the school choir. Every year the choir puts on a musical — last year it was_Charlie and the Chocolate Factory_; this year it is The Wizard of Oz. Every year students have to audition for a role in the play. Now, how do you suppose that audition takes place? Does it come after a few weeks of watching the film version or reading all or parts of the book? Does it come after listening to some of the story’s most famous passages and songs? That is, does it allow an immersive thinker an opportunity to do what they do best, get inside a world and look around, elaborate it, play with it? No, the auditions are songs from some place else, handed out the week or so before the auditions. Students are told to practice the songs, do their best, and decisions will get made.

Now, that approach works if a student is procedurally-driven and understands the necessity, or already desires, adult approval. It doesn’t work at all for the student that needs to live and breathe inside a thing, to get a sense of it, to find their excitement there.

Fundamentally, this comes down to the difference between teachers as the center of a curriculum and students at the center. As a teacher myself, I know I can’t be all things to all students, and in a post to follow, I want to think more about how education might be made better for more kinds of learners than it currently is. In fact, I worry about one recent trend in particular: the rise of the master teacher and what that means for learning differences — here, learning differences are meant much more broadly than they are in the education industry.

  1. The classical conception of the different ways the brain works are that it possesses primarily two modes of operating, linear and rich. The linear mode, popularly known as left brain, works well with language and other sequential kinds of processing. The rich mode, aka the right brain, processes information through patterns. We think of it as intuitive, that years upon years of experience and practice have so layered any sequence with so much richness that it feels somehow magical when we can discern dozens and hundreds of possible steps and can calculate what the best possible next step is based upon those layers. That is, intuition seems to be an example of the two modes operating really well together.