Friday, October 17, 2014

Normal Times vs. Chaotic Times

Here is something I have been thinking about a bit lately. It seems like there is something different about the times we are currently in. Everybody that I talk to seem to feel it somehow. But nobody can put it into any context. We have been in an extended recession. The usual economic rules don't seem to be working. Nobody seems to know what to do. We have a great deal of global unrest punctuated by crises like the Ebola epidemic. The US Congress can't seem to get anything done. There is great political division across the US. And, it is not limited to political and economic realms. In their personal lives, people seem to be unsettled and no longer deriving the satisfaction they once derived. People used to feel that if you worked hard and pursued your goals, you would get somewhere. Now that seems to be fanciful musings from the past. Something is different. If I had to summarize it in a sound bite, I would say that nobody seems to know what is going on and nobody seems to know what to do about it. So, I began thinking about what is going on.

I have been getting clues now for several years and those clues are beginning to fall into a pattern. I will describe some of the clues in future posts. For now, I will just provide a general description just so you don't think that the clues are coming from voices in my head.

Let's say that you are working on a problem in the back of your mind. Somebody says something that resonates greatly and seems to provide some insight into the problem you are puzzling over.  This is a clue. It may have had nothing at all to do with your problem. But, because it provided needed insight, it is a clue. I will expand on this later.

For right now I am going to cut to the chase and lay out the answer. We have gone from a period of normal times to a period of chaotic times. And understanding that helps us make sense of what is going on and what to do about it. If that peaks your interest, stay tuned, or keep reading as the case may be. I will explain all in upcoming or subsequent posts.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Taking a Break

The academic year is coming to an end. My last class is Wednesday. And then I coast into summer mode. I have some things to work on which will require a lot of attention. So, I will be taking a break from blogging. If you wish to be notified when I start again you can follow me on Twitter. My account is DrJohnArtz. I don't tweet much so you won't get a lot of traffic. But, I will send out a tweet when I start blogging again. Enjoy the summer. I will be thinking deep thoughts. ;)

Saturday, April 19, 2014


A colleague of mine suggested doing an ethnographic study of an organization where he is doing some consulting work. Somehow, the idea of learning more about ethnography caught my attention. I am not sure how this happened. I ignore most things. But, now and then, an idea will get stuck in my head and I can't get it out.

The term ethnography comes from two Greek words which translate, roughly, into writing about people. It is probably better known as cultural anthropology. What an ethnographer does is to move into a foreign culture, attempt to understand it from the inside, and then document that understanding. Historically, the was done by people who wished to understand other cultures from large countries to small isolated tribes. More recently, organizational cultures have attracted attention as well.

The philosophical justification for this approach is articulated in Martin Hollis' The Philosophy of Social Science One of the dimensions that divides the assumptions made by researchers is Explanation vs. Understanding. Those who seek explanation looks for relationships between variables in describing a culture. For example, money spent on one's self versus money spent on others might be a metric to describe a society. Further, if there is a relationship between money spent on others and longevity, then those who seek explanations have found what they are looking for. But, what is it like to live in a culture where one spends more money on others? Those who seek explanation cannot answer that. For that we need understanding. And ethnography is a means of achieving understanding. While researchers holding different sets of assumptions might have harsh words for those holding other assumptions, it really isn't a matter of right or wrong. Different sets of assumptions yield different knowledge. And one can only argue that a set of assumptions is more or less useful in obtaining certain knowledge.

I found ethnography appealing for three reasons. First, the quantitative/technical part of my brain gets tired and  ethnography provides a way to use a different part of my brain when the other part needs a rest. Second, unlike many academics who drill deeper and deeper into a niche, I am quite the reverse. I want to know about everything. Finally, I believe this approach might have great value in studying certain aspect of Information Technology. For example, there are definitely software 'cultures' that produce information systems and those cultures need to be better understood. Further, we see unique cultures developing in virtual worlds and massively multi-player role playing games. And those unique cultures would bear some scrutiny as well. In addition, I think I might be uniquely qualified to do that as it is easier for an expert in IT to learn ethnography than it would be for an ethnographer to learn information technology. So, I am off on another tangent.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Presenting, Sequential Art, Archetypes and Abstrations

I mentioned a whole flock of books on presenting that came out in the past 5 or 6 years. My favorites include  The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting by Stanley K. Ridgely and HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations  by Nancy Duarte both of which emphasize the use of stories as the backbone of a presentation.

But, when it comes to advise on how to construct a story, there is precious little help. We get such tired heuristics such as Beginning, Middle and End. But, that is not particularly useful to one trying to figure out a narrative argument to bolster their presentation. So, how does one construct a compelling narrative? Once again, graphic novels come to the rescue. For example Will Eisner the man who coined the term "graphic novel" provides two works Comics and Sequential Art
and Graphical Storytelling and Visual Narrative which do provide some structure.  If we think of a presentation as sequential art they provide a framework for thinking through the storyline.

Another benefit that the graphic novel format provides is the use of archetypes. Archetypes are symbols for bundles of human behavior that tend to occur together. Archetypes provide us with a high level of intellectual economy where we don't have to read long passages which describe behaviors that we have to infer character traits from. Instead we are given an archetype with which we are familiar that is customized for use in the story. One might argue that this is a response to the short attention span that we have developed in this age of text and distractions. But, I see it as stepping back another level of abstraction in our knowledge

To understand this level of abstraction consider a simple cognitive function of counting. First we count on our fingers, then pencil and paper where numbers represent quantity, then on a calculator where the computations are done for us and finally on a computer where the computations are embedded in a procedure. As our knowledge grows it become increasingly important to organize our knowledge base into levels of abstraction and select the level of abstraction that is necessary for educating us with the things we need to know. It seems like graphic novels may be the next level of abstraction for a rapidly expanding knowledge base.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Graphic Novels and the Future of Education

In the same way that stand up comedy provides a useful model for thinking about lecturing, graphic novels provide a useful model for education as well. But, whereas stand up comedy only provides insight into lecturing, graphic novels provide insight into writing educational books and presenting educational content. Further they provide insight into presenting both in class and online. 

There are three ways in which the format and design of graphic novels can be applied to education:1) better books, 2) better lectures and presentations; , and 3) more compelling content in distance education classes.We have already seen the beginings of this move toward better books. For example, Icon Books has an "Introducing" series of books which present some pretty serious content in a graphic novel format. For example Introducing Philosophy: A Graphic Guide is, as the title says, an introduction to philosophy. I have read dozens of these titles and their graphic novel format allows the reader to come up to speed very quickly in a diverse range of topics. The last one of these I bought, which was only a couple years ago, did not have the title addition "A Graphic Guide" which suggests that Icon books is becoming more aware of the power of the graphic format, at least for sales.

One could easily argue that these "Introducing" books do not provide the depth that one needs to really become an expert in an area. And, I would agree. But that is not the point. As fields get deeper and deeper, we find that experts become silo-ed with a deep knowledge in their field but little understanding of adjacent fields. I believe that education in the future will require a general understanding of a wide variety of fields either in conjunction with or even without deeper knowledge in a specialized field. And the graphics novel format will help facilitate that.

Graphic novel design will also lead to better lectures and presentations. In the past five years or so we have seen a flurry of new books on presentation skills which condemn mind numbing linear PowerPoint presentations and raise the bar of expectations for people who do presentations. Much emphasis in these new books is placed on narrative reasoning or story line. Most books emphasize the importance of story but few provide much detailed information about how to create story lines. This is where the design theory of graphic novels comes in. Some of the biggest names in comics such as Will Eisner and Scott McCloud have written amazingly insightful works on how to design graphic novels. To be fair, they are focusing on comics. But, both readily recognize the potential application of this media in other areas. I would wholeheartedly agree.  Just like it was a small step from stand up comedy to better lectures, it is a small step from comics to better presentations.

Finally, the design techniques of graphic novels will lead to more compelling distance education. Just like Sesame Street realized decades ago, you can't teach anybody anything if you cannot, first, keep their attention. This is already a problem in classroom education but it will worsen when education is delivered in distance mode. At least in the classroom students don't have distractions (assuming that they aren't playing with their laptops or iPhones). But, at home where they are recieving instruction over the Internet the pedagogical content is competing with television, streaming video, music, kids crying, friends coming over and all manner of compelling distractions. Anyone who thinks that video recording of classroom lectures will serve this audience probably ought to get out of education and find a field they know something about.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lectures and Stand Up Comedy

I am going to digress to make a point that will tie in nicely with and bolster the point of the next post. So, bear with me as this will probably sound like an unrelated digression.

I have been lecturing to classes for many decades. When one 'takes' classes they see a professor or teacher at a moment in time which is too brief to see any patterns with regard to teaching or lecturing. But, when you teach for some period of time those patterns become obvious, perhaps painfully obvious.

Professors, not unlike other performers, experiences ups and downs in their profession. Some times teaching is as good as life can  get. Other times it borders on the unbearable. For example, new professors are often buoyed by the experience of being in front of the class. Being the expert while gaining the respect and admiration of the students is a pretty heady experience. But, at some point, the novelty wears off and the new professor experiences doubt. Maybe he doesn't know as much as he though she did. Maybe there are students in the class who know more either from other classes or from life experiences. In some classes the chemistry is amazing. In others it is poisonous. Some times you can't wait till class begins. Other times, you would do anything to avoid it if you could.

It was in one of these slumps that I had an epiphany. I had been a bit off and I had just had a nightmare class. Everyone who teaches knows exactly what I mean by the nightmare class. There are students in the class who don't want to be there. There are others who shouldn't be there. There are no motivated students that you can use to perk the class up. It is a dreary and difficult situation. Fortunately, it does not happen very often.

But, it was in one of these slumps that I was up late at night watching stand up comedy on Comedy Central. The epiphany was that teaching and stand up comedy had a lot in common. The comedian cannot rely on the energy of the audience. While it is nice if the audience loves the show, the comedian must be energetic even if the audience is asleep or abusive. The comedian must make each joke fresh even if that joke has been told a hundred times before. Similarly, the professor cannot rely on the energy of the audience. The lecture must be energetic even if the class is half asleep. And ideas must be offered as though the professor just thought of them in order to keep the lecture fresh. There are more parallels, but the point here is merely to show that one can get inspiration from the oddest places and you never know when a format used in one area can be applied to advantage in an other.

When I stumbled on to graphic novels, I had a similar epiphany. The format of graphic novels can be applied to great advantage in education - first in in-class lectures and ultimately to online education. I have used the stand up format to great advantage in improving my in-class lectures and I am sure I can use the format of graphic novels to take things to the next level.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Learning to Draw and Learning to Write, Again

In the last post, I heralded the future potential of graphic novels. And I will continue on this theme in future posts. But it is easy to to sit back making proclamations about the future. The question is - are you will to put your time where your mouth is? And my answer is - yes I am. I am going to learn how to write graphic novels. I doubt very seriously that I will ever write The Great American Comic book. But, then, that is not really what I am after. I want to learn this skill so I can apply it other things.

Many years back I decided that I need to learn how to write. I am sure I have told this story elsewhere in this blog. So I will just hit the high points here. I enlisted a group of friends, students and colleagues who I put on a listserv and promised to send out a chapter every week. I used some of the people on the list as the basis for characters in the story. The result, after several online novels, was that I had honed my writing skills considerably. Although I never published any fiction, which was not really my intention, I did seriously boost my writing skills. And those skills have paid off in all the writing that I do including this blog. In addition, I am better at storytelling which is an important skill in blogging, lectures, and even academic presentations. So, it was well worth the effort.

But, traditional writing, both fiction and non fiction is very different from writing for graphic novels. I am not prepared, at this stage to articulate those difference. However, I will at some point. But, those writing skills will become very important in developing more compelling lectures and presentations. And, I hope to carry them forward into the world of distance education which is badly in need of something.

But, it isn't just writing. I have to learn how to draw. Initially, I am not very ambitious here. I will see how it goes. If I can learn how to draw simple clip art I will call it a success. This alone is worth the trouble as 'borrowing' clip art from the web may become a problem in the future if I develop classes online from which I derive revenue. There is free clip art but it looks cheesy compared to custom clip art that is drawn specifically for a situation. If I can develop these skills and want to take on more challenges, I will create a cast of characters which I can use in producing educational materials. If I get really ambitious, I might use these skills to write educational books.

If you are astute, you might be thinking - there are a lot of professional artists and writers out there. How can I compete with them. That is an important question. But I do have an answer. First of all, most graphic novels are created by writers and artists. That is two people working in collaboration. I think I can learn to do both. Can I do both as well as the professionals? No, but then I don't need to. I have another advantage as well. I can provide content. So, I become the single person - writer, artist and content provider. And there are precious few of those. Further, as far as I know there are none in my areas of expertise. So, this seems like a good bet.