Chevalier of Arts and Letters: Acceptance Speech - Ron Burnett

Vancouver, Canada, June 3, 2010

M. Garcia, Consul-General of France

Distinguished guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

Good evening and, thank-you so much for coming!!

I stand here tonight feeling both proud and humbled. Proud because so much about culture and creativity is affirmed by this honour, and humbled because I have been chosen to receive this prestigious award from the French government.

Mes premiers mots seront pour exprimer mes sincère remerciements
au gouvernement français, à l'ancienne ministre de la culture et de la communication Madame Christine Albanel, au ministre de la culture et de la communication Monsieur Frédéric Mitterand, à l'Ambassadeur de la France à Ottawa, Monsieur François Delattre, au Consul de la France à Vancouver, Monsieur Alexandre Garcia et à son Attaché Culturel, Monsieur Hadrian Laroche.

Merci pour tout ce que vous avez fait pour rendre possible cette grande distinction.

C’est un honneur d’avoir été reconnu et accepté à l ordre — un ordre qui est unique en caractère et objectif parmi les démocraties occidentales.

Let me express my profound thanks to the French government, the former Minister of Culture and Communication, La Ministre, Christine Albanel, the Minister, M. Frederic Mitterand, the French Ambassador in Ottawa, M. François Delattre, and M Alexandre Garcia the Consul in Vancouver and his Cultural Attaché, M Hadrien LAROCHE. Thank-you for making this award possible and thank-you for the recognition and for supporting awards of this kind, which are unique in character and purpose in Western democracies. My deepest thanks also to my wife Martha and my two daughters, Maija and Katie for their support and love.

One of the central purposes of French government cultural policy in the international arena is the promotion of cultural diversity among all nations. This policy is also at the heart of UNESCO’s cultural platform. 93 nations signed an agreement to promote cultural diversity, including Canada. France led this effort, and among the policy’s key statements are the following:

**Affirming** that cultural diversity is a defining characteristic of humanity;

**Conscious** that cultural diversity forms a common heritage of humanity and should be cherished and preserved for the benefit of all;

**Being aware** that cultural diversity creates a rich and varied world, which increases the range of choices and nurtures human capacities and values, and therefore is a mainspring for sustainable development for communities, peoples and nations;

and finally,

**Recalling** that cultural diversity, flourishing within a framework of democracy, tolerance, social justice and mutual respect between peoples and cultures, is indispensable for peace and security at the local, national and international levels.

These statements and the values they put forward are in many respects, at the heart of my career and articulate far better than I ever could what has motivated me to spend a lifetime creating, promoting and defending culture in all its manifestations and forms.

I was born in London, England in a difficult post-war period of deprivation and familial challenge. My family and I immigrated to Canada in 1952 during a time of economic difficulty for all countries. The struggle of immigrants to find their place has only accelerated since then, not only because of the increasing movement of peoples across many societies, but also because so many cultures have faced immense and sometime insurmountable struggles to survive. Disaporic experiences were fundamental features of the 20th century and will continue to determine the direction of the 21st century.

My career is built upon and is a reflection of what I learned during that formative and early period of my life as we struggled to adapt to living in Montreal.

Over the last forty years, I have worked at a number of positions including a wonderful period at McGill University and five years in Australia at LaTrobe University. During my tenure as the President of Emily Carr University I have learned more than I could ever have imagined when I took the position fourteen years ago.

Seamus Heany, the great Irish poet, credits poetry for teaching him to “walk on air against your better judgment.”

Albert Camus, whom I read in my teens and who had a formative impact on my life, said, “The artist forges himself midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from.” “Et celui qui, souvent, a choisi son destin d'artiste parce qu'il se sentait différent apprend bien vite qu'il ne nourrira son art, et sa différence, qu'en avouant sa ressemblance avec tous.”

When you walk on air, life is a continuous adventure. And, when you immerse yourself in beauty, even the saddest moments are learning experiences. Learning is at the heart of what I do everyday. It is only possible to learn if one remains open, open to change, open to insights, open to difference. Even in this historical period characterized by many difficult challenges, I continue to believe that it is possible to walk on air.

I am privileged everyday at Emily Carr to be among wonderful people and to experience their passionate excitement about creativity, invention and innovation — their extraordinary commitment to the materials of art, to the crafts of making and to the challenges of living and learning about the creative life, their passion for aesthetics, for colour and for form, their intense desire to produce meaning and communicate it, all of this has not only taught me a great deal, but also given me a profound insight into the potential and importance of the creative process.

So, this award means the world to me because it also acknowledges the values of that creative life and the importance of sustaining creativity in every aspect of what we do everyday of our lives.

The other great intellectual mentor in my life is Claude Lévi-Strauss. His work brings together all of my interests in anthropology, sign systems, linguistics and images. It is therefore not without some sense of the ironies of history that we find ourselves today amidst a renaissance in First Nations culture and cultural production.

Because, it was Lévi-Strauss who brought Pacific Northwest native culture into French consciousness and did more than many to signal to Westerners the importance of culture to this extraordinary area of the world. And, it is not without irony that in one of his last books, brilliantly titled, Look, Listen, Read (Regarder, Ecouter, Lire) that Levi-Strauss celebrated the craft of basket weaving so integral to First Nations culture. He talks of craft in relation to myth and of the integrated nature of making, thinking and living. For me, making, thinking and creative engagement are at the core of what I do and how I live.

I will leave it to my other great intellectual hero, Michel Serres to complete these remarks. In speaking about the social and cultural context that we now share, Serres mentions the endless noise of modern life, the sharp points of despair at the edge of chaos, and he contrasts this with art as the means through which we build society, create vision and make peace with each other and with the world we live in. And then, in talking about Lévi-Strauss, he says, Levi-Strauss helps us see what we can’t see, and through his stories he helps us understand the strange and beautiful social forms that surround us. Cheers to that and cheers to you all!! Et Merci encore à vous tous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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President's Convocation Speech of 2010 - Emily Carr University

Mr. Chancellor, Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Guests, Grads, Colleagues, Dear Family and Friends - All —

Before I begin my formal remarks, I want to express my thanks to Dr. George Pedersen for his extraordinary work on behalf of Emily Carr. Dr. Pedersen is finishing his term as Chair of the Board of Governors. He has been steadfast, insightful and generous not only to me and to the Board but to everyone at Emily Carr. We love you George, thank-you.

I also want to thank our Chancellor for his very generous donation to Emily Carr that will support awards to graduating students in perpetuity. I also want to thank Jake Kerr for all his help in securing a new campus for Emily Carr. I look forward to working with Jake over the next few years as we realize the dream of building a 21st Century Art and Design University. Finally, I want to acknowledge and thank Monique Fouquet, our VP Academic for leading the complex transition and planning process that is transforming us into a fully-fledged university of Art and Design.

Graduations are always auspicious occasions, special moments in time for you, -- students of Emily Carr University, and for us, faculty, staff and administrators — special because this event marks the both the beginning and the end of an important period in your lives and in ours. Emily Carr as an institution is small enough that we know many of you personally and have witnessed and in some cases participated in your struggle to become artists, designers, media creators — and because that struggle is so important to the future — yours and the society we live in, my comments today will deal with the future and your potential contribution to the betterment of society.

Universities fuel social, cultural and economic growth and change. Universities are at the heart of what we mean by freedom and democracy. It is within the university context that we can freely share not only ideas, but also develop solutions to some of the challenges that we all face. To be a creative person in this context is both a privilege and a burden.

We cannot exercise our creative talents in a vacuum but must connect what we do to where we live, connect our visions to the communities we share, link our imaginations to suggesting solutions to the vexing problems of the day, explore and innovate with the hope that we will also communicate values that have an impact, values that we can believe in and support.

Over the last four years, many of you have witnessed some dramatic changes in our society. We have all lived through a major economic downturn and seen an extraordinary election in the United States. We have watched the emergence of China and India as important powers and lived through more and more examples of climate change. These are but a few of the many events during this compressed period in time. Throughout this period you have had to learn how to balance your personal lives with being a student, and to find a sense of equilibrium as our social context has become more and more complex. Whether you have desired it or not the history of this period has affected your art and it is one of our shared responsibilities as artists to understand these effects.

As creative people, we balance mastery of materials whether they are real or virtual with the creation of artifacts. When you become an artist or a designer or a media creator you commit yourself to this balance, to the shape and form of meaning, to the translation of meaning into form and shape and this commitment is sometimes difficult and other times seems to flow intuitively. The ability to balance all these elements teaches us something about balance in general, about the need to find and maintain some poise as the complex swirl of everyday life circles around us. There is an exquisite beauty to this balancing act — exquisite because we are privileged enough to be in a context where we can dream and where it is possible, even a requirement to translate those dreams into reality. Emily Carr University permits and encourages the imaginative leap from idea to reality! What an extraordinary thing! A place that actually opens up the possibilities of self, transformation and personal growth — a place that historically over 85 years has helped build the creative culture of BC and Canada —a place of freedom that has nurtured and supported some of Canada’s most important creative people.

This heritage is what we all have a responsibility to maintain, support and celebrate. This is the present and the future.

I want you to imagine yourselves inside a room with the sounds of twittering everywhere, the chatter and exchange of ideas, disagreements, agreements, information and misinformation, think of that room as a large public square where we have assembled to talk, create and talk some more. Think of that room as a studio where the smells and tastes are integral to releasing the energy of creativity. Think of yourselves during that silent moment in front of an empty canvas or a blank screen and that chance, that rare chance to create, to imagine and to produce. At each stage of your learning experience you have had to overcome that emptiness, the sense that there is meaning even if it is not immediately apparent. And each time that you have productively found a solution, you have validated your education, and reinforced the importance of what we do collectively and individually. This creative heritage is your responsibility to maintain, support and celebrate.

We live in a city that by virtue of location and history extends Canada eastwards to the vast nations of Asia. We live in a city that is small by comparison to the large cities of Europe and America. Yet, we have produced some of the greatest artists of the 20th Century and hopefully will continue to produce even greater artists in the 21st Century. Perhaps it is the fact that we are the mediators between Europe and Asia. Perhaps we have always been not so much a gateway to the East as a cultural point of transition between east and west. And perhaps that hybridity has given us a unique advantage — the advantage of understanding how cultures come together and how diversity is at the very core of our identities, at the very core of most creative acts.

So, graduates!!! You now bear the burden of carrying on some great traditions. You now have the chance to become what you imagine, you can translate your hopes into action, but you will also need to relate what you do, what you imagine to who you are and WHERE you are. You will need to connect to the community and understand where you can contribute. Now more than ever there is urgency to how we interpret the present and how we see the future. And, as you engage with these challenges remember Emily Carr. We are and always will be your extended family.

Good Luck and all the best for the future. [This speech is also available in PDF.](/~rburnett/Weblog/Grad_2010_Speech.pdf)

Learning, Informal - Formal

An editorial in the April 8th edition of Nature raises some important issues about student learning experiences in the sciences. [The] "evidence strongly suggests that most of what the general public knows about science is picked up outside school, through things such as television programmes, websites, magazine articles, visits to zoos and museums — and even through hobbies such as gardening and birdwatching. This process of 'informal science education' is patchy, ad hoc and at the mercy of individual whim, all of which makes it much more difficult to measure than formal instruction. But it is also pervasive, cumulative and often much more effective at getting people excited about science — and an individual's realization that he or she can work things out unaided promotes a profoundly motivating sense of empowerment." (Nature 464, 813-814)

The same argument can be made for many other disciplines. The relationship between informal and formal learning is characterized by extreme fuzziness. As I have discussed in recent articles (particularly, The Radical Impossibility of Teaching) classrooms and formal lectures may well be the last place in which empowered and empowering learning takes place. The formal schedules of schools, departments divided into sometimes highly contested disciplines, and the credit system all discourage the value and importance of informal learning.

In fact, learning informally is at the heart of how people discover new things and new ways of understanding the world. For example, a visit to a museum combines the experiences of viewing with the challenges of interpretation. It would be difficult to summarize or quantify the relationships that viewers developed with Mark Rothko's work at a recent retrospective at the Tate Modern in London. Something was happening, although it was difficult to know what. Many visitors sat and stared at the paintings for quite a while. Were they wasting time? Or were they exploring the canvases, their brilliant colours and careful shading?

"An Ad Hoc Committee of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching
(NARST) stated in 2003 that there are three “important characteristics of learning… First, learning is a personal process, second, it is contextualized, and third, it takes time…Learning occurs when people reconstruct meaning and understanding; a different way of thinking, perhaps, or a different way of responding to an idea or event. Learning that occurs today depends on yesterday’s learning and is the foundation for tomorrow’s learning. The cumulative, iterative process of learning emphasizes the importance of time.”. Our own research in this area reinforces the importance of iteration." (Susan Stocklmayer, Public awareness of science and informal learning - a perspective on the role of science museums, published by the National Academies in the US)

Learning takes time and follows many pathways. A good teacher can create a map with destinations, but the routes have to be developed by the students. Those routes may meander for a while because the iterative process is not the same for everyone. Knowledge and information can be shared along the way. Wisdoms can be imparted through discussion and interaction, but these travels will always be characterized by the richness of the unexpected sometimes colliding with the expectations of teachers and other times producing engaged and engaging dialogue.

The tyranny of schedules in schools is that they artificially 'locate' learning at a time and place that may not be convenient for everyone. The schedule cannot account for iterative processes because it generates a linear type of learning that goes against its very essence.

"To summarise: learning rarely, if ever, occurs and develops from a single experience. It is cumulative, emerging through diverse experiences. It is a dynamic, never-ending, and holistic phenomenon of constructing personal meaning. Much of what people come to know about the world, including the world of science content and process, derives from real world experiences within a diversity of appropriate physical and social contexts, motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn." (Susan Stocklmayer, Public awareness of science and informal learning - a perspective on the role of science museums, published by the National Academies in the US)

Becoming a Designer in the Age of Aquarius

What’s the point of reviewing a design book that is over 40 years old, long out of print and tied to the style and technology of 1968? Well, S. Neil Fujita’s Aim for a Job in Graphic Design/Art (Richards Rosen Press, New York) is a fount of professional intelligence for an emerging field. It is also a slice of lost graphic design history worth reprising.

by Steven Heller....read more.....

What they don’t teach you about identity design in design schools…

One of the most often repeated refrains on design blogs, in the critique of a new logo, is “Any design student could do a better job.” This ubiquitous comment is especially amusing to me because, well, it’s mostly true. If you judge virtually every new logo designed today by classical design school standards, the kids in school are doing a better job. This is because of the way logo and identity design are taught in so many schools, and what that exercise is meant to accomplish.

Read more……

Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education

by Henry Jenkins, Professor at USC.

An important and timely discussion that explores the growing interdependence of learners with digital media and the need to examine how these media are working, what their influence is and how to teach in this new environment.

Jenkins interviews, Pillar Lacasa, a Spanish researcher. His first question is: "Children and young people like to spend their free time in front of the screen. Could you give us some good reasons to that could persuade educators to introduce new media and screens in schools." Read more……

The role of research in the Creative Arts (1)

Ceramics is an extraordinary craft-based discipline. It is also an art and a science. The materials that ceramicists use have changed over the last century, but many of the core creative methods remain the same. None of what I have just said would be possible without some research into the history and practices of ceramic artists and the technologies they use. So, for example when I mention to people that ceramic engineering is a crucial part of the digital age, they don’t know what I am talking about. Optical fibers make use of ceramic materials. The tiles which cover the bottom of the Space Shuttle are made of ceramic materials shaped and formed using a variety of heating and manufacturing methods.

Ceramics is increasingly being used in the creation of products (other than the traditional ones) and is linking itself to product and industrial design. There are medical applications and so on.

I mention this to point out that research is fundamental to any creative exploration and that research may take any form — and make use of any number of different materials. A reductive approach will not recognize the rather extensive way in which the practice of creation is deeply involved with everything from theory through to reflection and self-criticism. For too long, universities in particular have maintained distinctions between their professional and non-professional disciplines as a way of differentiating between applied and pure research. The latter is supposed to reflect a disinterested approach to knowledge in the hope that over time the research will produce some results. The former is supposed to direct itself towards results from the outset and to be more directly connected to industry and the community. Engineering schools for example, are cloistered in separate buildings on university campuses and generally develop an applied approach to learning. In neither case, applied or pure can the distinctions I have just mentioned work since by its very nature research is **always** both applied and pure.

Creative practices are generally seen as applied because the focus is on materials even if they are virtual. The standardized and by now clichéd image of creative people driven by intuitions and/or inspiration actually covers up the years of apprenticeship that every artist has to engage in to become good at what they do.

Every creative discipline involves many different levels of research, some of which is directly derived from practices in the social sciences, as well as the sciences. In the next installment of this article, I will examine how creative practices are at the forefront of redefining not only the nature of research but the knowledge base for many disciplines.

Tactile Images

In 1992 a major statue of one of the founders of Canadian confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald was decapitated in a local park in Montreal.

Macdonaldg.jpg

Although poorly maintained up until that time, rusty and neglected, the decapitation provoked a major outcry from Canadian federalists. To make matters worse, the decapitated head was stolen. No effort was made to replace the statue or repair it. Pigeons now roost on the remains and the statue has deteriorated further. From time to time journalists have commented on the loss and some private citizens have banded together to raise funds to have a new head made. But the symbolism of the gesture will never be forgotten nor will the symbolic death of the federal spirit in Quebec simply disappear when the statue is restored.

There is a sense in which this sculpture, both in its full and fragmented form, stands for historical realities which transcend its status as an object and are a clue to its transformation into an image. The aura of the statue (negative or positive) seems to bring history, the man himself and notions of the nation state into a synoptic grid, from which nearly any set of meanings can be drawn.

So complex is this interplay, so naturalized are its underlying premises, that the task of “writing” about this history of the image of Sir John A. Macdonald will be richly endowed from the start. It will move through a number of sometimes contradictory and sometimes connected levels of meaning, creating a sphere of relationships in constant need of interpretation and reinterpretation.

The process will oscillate between the micro-historical and the macro-historical and even then the terms of that interaction will produce new and different relationships dependent on the context of analysis and the subjective choices of the interpretator. In other words the statue is both a powerful presence and an incidental component of what we do to it, the basis for a hierarchy of interpretations, and the reason we tear at the statue’s foundations.

Although headless, the statue retains all the qualities which allow it to be identified with its human predecessor. As a focal point of the debate about the future of Canada, it matters little whether the head is there or not. Yet, as an image, the loss of the head brings the arguments of history into the forefront and suggests a rather paradoxical homology in which image and history are one, in which the visual and the tactile co-exist, through the absence of the eyes of one of the founders of modern day Canada.

21st Century Student

I will call him Anthony. He arrived in Vancouver with a trunk full of DVD's. He uses SMS and a variety of social networking tools to communicate with friends and family. He uses a small video camera to record his everyday life and edits the output on a laptop and then uploads the material onto the Web. He is adept at video games, though they are not an obsession. Cell phones are expensive, but he finds the money. This sounds familiar; an entire generation working creatively with Facebook and Vimeo and Youtube and Flckr. He loves old movies, hence the DVD's. He knows more about films from the 1970's and 1980's than most film historians. He can quote dialogue from many films and reference specific shots with ease. He uses his expertise in editing to comment on the world and would prefer to show you a short video response to events than just talk about them.

Cultural analysts tend to examine Anthony's activities and use of technology as phenomena, as moving targets which change all the time, just as they saw pop music in the 1960's as a momentary phase or like their early comments on personal computers which did not generally anticipate their present ubiquity.

However, what Anthony is doing is building and creating a new language that combines many of the features of conventional languages but is more of a hybrid of many different modes of expression. Just as we don't really talk about language as a phenomenon, (because it is inherent to everything that we do) we can't deal with this explosion of new languages as if they are simply a phase or a cultural anomaly.

What if this is the new form and shape of writing? What if all of these fragments, verbal, non-verbal, images and sounds are inherent to an entire generation and is their mode of expression?

Language, verbal and written is at the core of what humans do everyday. But, language has always been very supple, capable of incorporating not only new words, but also new modalities of expression. Music for example became a formalized notational system through the adaptation and incorporation of some of the principles of language. Films use narrative, but then move beyond conventional language structure into a hybrid of voice, speech, sounds and images.

As long as Anthony's incorporation of technology and new forms of expression is viewed as a phenomenon it is unlikely that we will understand the degree to which he is changing the fundamental notions of communications to which we have become accustomed over the last century.

Anthony however has many problems with writing. He is uncomfortable with words on a page. He wants to use graphics and other media to make his points. He is more comfortable with the fragment, with the poetic than he is with the whole sentence. He is prepared to communicate, but only on his own terms.

It is my own feeling that the ubiquity of computers and digital technologies means that all cultural phenomena are now available for use by Anthony and his generation and they are producing a new framework of communications within which writing is only a piece and not the whole.

Some may view this as a disaster. I see Anthony as a harbinger of the future. He will not take traditional composition classes to learn how to write. Instead, he will communicate with the tools that he finds comfortable to use and he will persist in making himself heard or read. But, reading will not only be text-based. Text on a page is as much design as it is media. The elliptical nature of the verbal will have to be accommodated within the traditions of writing, but writing and even grammar will have to change.

I have been talking about a new world of writing that our culture is experimenting with in which conventional notions of texts, literacy and coherence are being replaced with multiples, many media used as much for experience as expression. Within this world, a camera, or mobile phone becomes a vehicle for writing. It is not enough to say that this means the end of literacy as we know it. It simply means that language is evolving to meet the needs of far more complex expectations around communications. So, the use of a short form like Twitter hints at the importance of the poetic. And the poetic is more connected to Rap music than it is to conventional notions of discursive exchange. In other words, bursts of communications, fragments and sounds combined with images constitute more than just another phase of cultural activity. They are at the heart of something far richer, a phantasmagoria of intersecting modes of communications that in part or in sum lead to connectivity and interaction.

Learners in a Changing Learning Landscape

Reference: Learners in a Changing Learning Landscape Reflections from a Dialogue on New Roles and Expectations Series: Lifelong Learning Book Series , Vol. 12 Visser, Jan; Visser-Valfrey, Muriel (Eds.) Springer,
2008, XII, 304 p., Hardcover

There are numerous books about learning and many different points of view about how people learn and what kinds of institutions (if any) work best for students and the public at large. The nuances of learning and the subtle and often challenging issues that surround the learning experience have remained (after hundreds of years of effort) at the centre of policy development for most western governments. Obviously, there are many important questions and concerns that make the debates about how we learn crucial to understand and to consider, not the least of which is that so much public money is invested in learning institutions. Notwithstanding the extent of and devotion to learning, the gap between our understanding of how people learn and why has only widened in recent years. This is perhaps the result of demands upon the educational system to both supply human resources for the benefit of our economic health and to teach with enough breadth to create a good citizenry. The balance that is needed among economic exigencies, creative freedom and critical thought cannot be achieved through simplistic and often linear notions of pedagogy and outcome. It is in this context of intense debate that a new book, entitled, Learners in a Changing Learning Landscape edited by Jan Visser and Muriel Visser-Valfrey is so welcome.

For those of you who are not familiar with Jan Visser and his extraordinary contribution over many years to learners and learning, take a look at the web site of an international organization that he founded and of which he is the President, Learning Development Institute.

The book is divided into fourteen fascinating chapters. The Vissers have brought together writers from many disciplines and the range of articles is very impressive. There is as much emphasis on the philosophy of teaching as there is on the experience of being an on-line learner. There is a superb chapter on the role of games in learning and some profound reflections on some of the basic principles of instruction. However, I will limit this review to the crucial second chapter by Jan Visser because it is such a fine and important piece of research while also being an important call to action for teachers and policy-makers in the educational area.

Visser begins the chapter with what seems like a simple question, what is learning? (12) He uses his own life as a way of reflecting on the informal manner in which we learn. So much of who we become and so much of what we do is the product of processes over which we have very little control. [Over the years,] “I learnt numerous other things, such as overcoming shyness, accepting tragic and irreversible loss, and interacting gently with most of those I meet. None of these were ever taught to me in any formal way or setting. I had to find out for myself, interacting with those whose advice I chose to accept and whose model I sought to emulate.” (13)

Learning is about comprehension and comprehensiveness and in the final analysis without a holistic view and practice, the learning experience loses its intense connection to collaboration and context. Classrooms, lecture halls and conversation are about collaboration, which in its simplest sense means that any exchange depends on the parties involved feeling that they are on a level playing field. And learning does not take place in one place or at one time, but is a continual feature of how humans engage with the world. So, Visser comes up with the following definition of learning: “…the disposition of human beings, and of the social entities to which they pertain, to engage in continuous dialogue with the human, social, biological and physical environment, so as to generate intelligent behavior to interact constructively with change.” (15) Perhaps the most important feature of this definition is the emphasis on change and on the notion of continuous change. Visser connects this to an even higher value centred on complexity that is, on the ability to engage with increasingly complex problems and challenges as one of the foundations of learning. Complexity is opposed to linearity and ambiguity is of greater value than certainty.

This emphasis on complexity continues throughout Visser’s chapter with a distillation of some of Edgar Morin’s ideas on education.

Visser has pulled together something very important here. This entire book becomes an example of what he suggests in his opening chapter. It is not only that learning is complex, but also that in order to understand learning more is needed than the kind of simple progression — linear in its design — that we have put together through the traditional educational system. The challenge is to take all of the elements that make it possible to live a rich and inquisitive life and place them into a context where they can be appreciated. In order to change that context, a new philosophical base has to be built, one that appreciates the transformative relationship between learning and change. A must read.

Table of contents
1. Let the dialogue begin: An introduction.-
2. Constructive interaction with change: Implications for learners and the environment in which they learn.-
3. The learning sciences, technology and designs for educational systems: Some thoughts about change.-
4. Learners in a changing learning landscape: Reflections from an instructional design perspective.-
5. The influence of epistemological beliefs on learners’ perceptions of online learning: Perspectives on three levels.-
6. Getting to know the feral learner.-
7. Postsecondary education in the changing learning and living landscapes.-
8. Online learning in context.-
9. New online learning technologies: New online learner competencies. Really?-
10. Reflections on seeking the ‘invisible’ online learner.-
11. Will games and emerging technologies influence the learning landscape?-
12. What makes good online instruction good? New opportunities and old barriers.-
13. Why basic principles of instruction must be present in the learning landscape, whatever form it takes, for learning to be effective, efficient and engaging.-
14. We question, we reflect, and we question again, therefore we are…: An analysis of the evolving dialogue around the central themes in this book.-

Reflections on Disciplines and Their Role in Universities

This short piece is adapted from a lecture I gave some years ago about the way disciplines, in particular film studies, develop into departments within universities. How do disciplines stay alive and remain current and connected to the social and historical context of which they are a part? How do they grow and how and why do they often stagnate?

Disciplines or areas of study and research are in large measure created and sustained by the institutions within which they are taught. To my mind when I say that, I am presuming that a discipline cannot be taught without also being researched, even if that research consists of no more than just keeping up with the production of others in the field.

Film Studies for example, has always been a hybrid of many different disciplines. This, as we shall see, has had both negative and positive results sometimes leading to an expansion of the discipline, other times leading to a severe contraction. Film is both an object of study and a creative discipline although there is a tendency to separate production from theory.

The construction of a discipline is dependent upon a set of processes which are located in the structure, politics and history of institutions. This may seem obvious, but over time the processes which have produced that history are often lost from view. The struggle through which that history has been forged recedes into the background. There have been many efforts over the last 35 years or so to build the study of film into a coherent and recognizable as well as acceptable discipline. Yet, because institutions drive towards discursive sameness (and this need not be a negative characteristic) as a means of giving disciplines credibility for teaching and research purposes, the often complex and bumpy road which has been followed doesn't appear to be a part of the discipline itself.

In concrete terms it would be unusual for a university film department to offer students a history of its own construction because that might entail rethinking the very purpose of the department itself. Furthermore, questions as to how one discourse, say in film theory, has become more privileged than another, go right to the heart of how a consensus has been built in the first place. Even, for example, the presumption that film history needs to be taught in film departments, suggests a particular theoretical schema, one that needs to be foregrounded and not simply assumed.

The internal cohesion of a discipline is driven by the demands of institutions, demands which are more often than not situated in the very language of the institutions themselves. How do the conditions of knowledge production affect the goals of disciplinary development?

The daily practice of film scholarship is provided with meaning by the community of researchers and teachers who together participate in constituting, creating and maintaining it. That community, however heterogeneous, will inevitably search for, and then fix upon a certain set of primary ideas which it feels 'represent' the discipline (a canon). The creation of a specific and sometimes very powerful discourse to re-enforce the strength of that approach is perhaps unavoidable. What needs to be discussed are the assumptions which have produced that discourse and the politics which have governed the choices that have shaped the discipline.

Sometimes, the environment of universities for example tends to militate against that happening. And so students are faced, as they are in many other disciplines, with an area called film studies which of necessity presents itself as already constituted. Again, this is perhaps unavoidable, but what interests me is what is lost in the process and how institutionalization has created pedagogical and research models to support certain discourses over others.

Cinema Studies has, in a short period of time, achieved what seemed very remote in the early 1970's. There are at present many teachers of cinema and an extraordinary proliferation of film departments at both the university and college level, particularly in North America. The discipline has been fragmented into a variety of specialties with each having an internal cohesion undreamed of during the early period of disciplinary 'construction'.

The heterogeneity of approaches which characterizes the study of film, has a great deal to do with what critical theorists like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno recognized in the 1930's. Film was then seen as the cutting edge of twentieth century culture, the practical manifestation of all that was wrong and right about the effects of new technologies upon art and audiences. If we were to reconstruct the arguments of that period we would find that the examination of film was heavily affected by debates in psychoanalysis and linguistics, as well as in literary criticism and the arts. Those debates were not seen as an infringement on the already defined territory of film studies, rather, it was if new technologies like film needed those debates and drifted inevitably towards the ideas which those debates initiated and developed.

Ironically, if film represented that sphere, that cross-section of interests which reflected its position as a new technology, it also pointed the way to a re-evaluation of the critical and theoretical enterprise in the arts. Its particular organization of meaning, its effective collapse of signifier and signified, its astonishing naturalization of the difference between the real and representation, all of these characteristics meant that the study of film could not proceed along conventional lines.

It is interesting to note that in each successive phase in the development of film studies, "other" disciplines have been used, as if the difficulty of finding a strategy to analyse film, meant that some kind of master code had to be found elsewhere. But as it turns out, this elsewhere suggests a division between disciplines and other areas which film studies has never been able to sustain. Film as poem, film as novel, film as text, images as sentences, as words, as frames. Film as painting, as music. Film and television, film in opposition to television and so on. I won't even begin to raise all of the comparisons with photography, the presumed interdependence, photographic metaphors, the fact that film as movement, images in movement, have always been seen in the light of images as still, photographic stills.

What we call film studies has never been able to bare its soul, to reveal, beneath of all of the comparisons, precisely that uniqueness which might distinguish it from the interlopers who camouflage it. I would suggest that film studies has been quite fortunate, because that essence just doesn't exist, and both the history of the 'discipline' and the manner in which films produce meaning, points towards the interdisciplinary as the context in which definitions of the field can best be worked out. Problems remain of course because every discipline has its own history, its own set of debates, often, its own language. But this doesn't in any way devalue the process of borrowing, albeit that more care needs to be taken with the use of other disciplines, including a more profound recognition of their boundaries and assumptions.

 

The Transformation of Culture (2)

In my previous post, I talked about the new world of writing that our culture is experimenting with in which conventional notions of texts, literacy and coherence are being replaced with multiples, many media used as much for experience as expression. Within this world, a camera, or mobile phone becomes a vehicle for writing. It is not enough to say that this means the end of literacy as we know it. It simply means that language is evolving to meet the needs of far more complex expectations around communications. So, the use of a short form like Twitter hints at the importance of the poetic. And the poetic is more connected to Rap music than it is to conventional notions of discursive exchange. In other words, bursts of communications, fragments and sounds combined with images constitute more than just another phase of cultural activity. They are at the heart of something far richer, a phantasmagoria of intersecting modes of communications that in part or in sum lead to connectivity and interaction.

The Poet's Challenge to Learning

Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore's work on education and learning (He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.) is of great significance and is not as well known as it should be in the West. In keeping with the richness and diversity of Tagore's vision, I would like to comment on a superb paper (The Poet's Challenge to Schooling: Creative Freedom for the Human Soul) by Shilpa Jain and others that explores not only Tagore's philosophy but his impact on the essential spirit, if not the soul of what it means to learn and be taught.

I would like to recount an experience, which I had some years ago during a visit to an experimental school in California, and how it affected my own expectations about teaching and learning. I was invited to a Rudolf Steiner School to examine their approach as well as to learn more about how they hoped to change the experience of learners in a positive and constructive fashion. I have many doubts about the underlying religious foundations for Steiner education, but I saw something that really affected me that is closely linked to the spirit of Tagore's perspective on education.

My hosts took me to a small elementary school that had been built at the edge of an agricultural area. Once inside the school, I noticed that the ceilings were quite low and that the furniture was considerably smaller than I had anticipated. One classroom had a very small door built into a larger one and as I looked into the classroom, I noticed that the desks were also smaller than usual. I asked the Director of the school why this was so and she explained that they had decided to tailor the architecture to the size of the children in order to make them more comfortable with the scale of the space. This struck me as an extraordinary idea. Children see the world around them from a very different perspective. Adults can seem like giants even when they are gentle. Scale, perspective and space are crucial components of a child's world, but are often disregarded. In fact, the general architecture of schools is poor and rarely takes students and their experience as a central premise for the design process. These factors are not minor ones for learners. Why would the school system be so unaware of their importance? There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is a lack of synchronicity between the higher purpose of learning and the everyday needs of learners.

This goes to the heart of one of Tagore's concerns, which is the relationship between creativity and freedom. Schools are presently designed to teach students and are not centred on the principles of learning. The lack of a holistic viewpoint of the sort suggested by Tagore is missing. Keep in mind, that my own view of learning is that it is very ephemeral and that for the most part, schools have outlived their usefulness in their present form and need to be completely rethought. This point of view is summarized in the following quote from Jain's piece:

"…the very act of creation is freedom, for it allows human beings to discover their full potential. They have the opportunity to live what is theirs, to make the world of their own selection, and to move it through their own movement." (Page 11 of The Poet's Challenge to Schooling: Creative Freedom for the Human Soul)

In order for creativity to be released and for students to discover their real purpose in learning, they have to have the power to criticize and reflect upon the experiences that they are having. This is much more difficult than it appears. It is part of a double bind. If the students themselves have not learned enough to make their criticism rigourous and well-thought out, then their commentary will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, if the environment does not facilitate the growth and the development of enough intellectual acuity, the quality of their discourse will be poor. This is not dissimilar to Tagore's commentary on the alienating experience that students have as they struggle with the banality of school and the lack of respect for nature and spirituality in the school system.

From my own perspective as the President of a University of Art and Design, I am most interested in the history of Santiniketan, the ashram that Tagore founded which turned into a school and now is a university. My own experience has taught me that institutions are very far away from understanding their own cultures with enough depth to engage in real change. This may seem like a dramatic statement, but the reality is that even the best of leaders tire out very quickly as they encounter increasingly complex levels of resistance to sometimes urgently needed shifts. The question is, what is it about an educational institution that breeds so much resistance? The answer is not a simple one because there are also numerous institutions in which radical thinking is taking place.

There is something fundamental about schooling that Tagore understood. In order to keep a school going the experience has to be systematized, that is, days have to be ordered and classes scheduled and marks given. Yet, it is precisely structures of this kind, which inhibit the development of open spaces and places for learning. What is unclear about Tagore’s perspective is how to ‘free’ up institutions — how to create enough of a sense of community to sustain open-ended inquiry and freshness of thinking. Tagore looked to nature as an example and in this he is quite close to the thinking of Thoreau and Rousseau. It is unclear how long that openness can be maintained without introducing some expectations both on the part of learners and teachers. In other words, there is a profound romanticism at the core of Tagore’s thinking and practice. It is a romanticism that I support, but for which there is no social, political or cultural consensus.

Even Tagore’s use of art and music mirrors many other experiments from Steiner through to Montessori. Jain’s paper explores all the facets of Tagore’s wonderful effort to build a new way of thinking about the world and about learning, but it fails to address the fundamental issues of institutional culture and institutional change. Given the large number of people are seeking to learn and the incredible investment of time and money into institutions ostensibly devoted to learning, strategies of institutional transformation seem to me to hold the key to future change in education as a whole.

The Importance of Colleges

I began my career as a teacher in a two year college in Montreal. Vanier College was the second English language institution created as part of the CEGEP system in Quebec after Dawson College. (CEGEP means, College of General & Vocational Education or Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel) I consider those early years to have been among the best, at least at the level of learning both for myself and for my students. Recent tragic events at Dawson College have reminded me of the richness of my experiences and the need to understand the importance of the colleges to the educational system in Canada.

Colleges (particularly two-year institutions) are generally looked down upon by universities for reasons that have little to do with their importance, indeed the centrality of colleges to a variety of communities. Here in British Columbia, colleges are crucial to so many communities that I often wonder (perhaps I am being naïve) why they are not celebrated not only for their histories, but for their achievements. College teachers have larger workloads and are not expected to do research, although it is impossible to teach without staying current within your field. Most post-secondary educational systems are characterized by tremendous diversity, in large measure because colleges respond in a more direct way to the needs of their constituents. It is a difficult balancing act — be responsive and yet provide contexts for learning that enhance and enrich not only the lives of learners, but allow them to develop the skills to go to university or into a profession.

I mention all of this because of a wonderful column by T. F. RIGELHOF entitled How we'll heal in the Saturday, September 16, 2006 edition of the Globe and Mail newspaper about the Dawson shootings. Unfortunately, the article is not available on the web. In the piece, Rigelhof celebrates the love that he has for the college and for its students. And for me, this is about the wonder that he feels at the engagement that is required to teach and learn.

In an earlier piece of mine, I wrote the following: "Ignorance is about resistance. It is about the desire to think and act in certain ways, most of which are rooted in a conscious refusal to engage with processes of inner reflection. The problem is that some pedagogical strategies try to anticipate what students need to know, as if teachers have already solved their own contradictory relationship with learning. The result is that teachers create (if not imagine) an ideal student and then make judgements about the students who are unable to attain the standards set by their instructional methods. If there is to be some equality of exchange here, then the teacher has to be learning nearly all of the time. This can then set the stage for some linkage and visibility between the foundational assumptions of the instructor and her own past, as well as her own history of learning. This may then return the teacher to a closer understanding of what it means to be a student."

I still stand by what I said and Rigelhof exemplifies why a strong emphasis on students changes not only their lives, but the lives of those who teach.

 

Hurricane Katrina

The Sunday New York Times Magazine of August 27th has a poignant and profoundly disturbing article and photo essay on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with particular emphasis on what happened to the children of the families that were displaced by the storm. The images are very powerful and the reality of what happened, the incompetence of the recovery effort and the lack of attention to the families struggling to remake their lives is disturbing and shocking.

The images made me angry, but also made me feel quite hopeless. Journalists have still not learned that shocking images achieve their effect, but little else. The personal stories of the children were heartbreaking and I felt the need to do something, but other then sending money to the relief effort or writing this short comment, my options remain limited.

This is indeed the challenge of the next few years. How can the information we receive be translated from our personal experiences into action? I have no pat answers to this question. A disturbing pattern has emerged over the last decade or so. More information has not led to more knowledge. Instead, it has led to increasing and sometimes deadly tribal activity. These tribes range from small groups to larger ones, but their common characteristic is a lack of direct response to crucial issues. Their worlds are centered on their own and sometimes parochial concerns. Globalization, it seems, is actually returning us to a more medieval practice of village life, the only difference being that today's villages are not constrained by national boundaries.

If each village were to become the center of new and imaginative activities directed toward social change and equity, then there would indeed be opportunities to support people in need wth a more determined effect and impact than is presently possible. I will discuss this issue in greater depth over the next few weeks in an expansion of earlier posts on communities within the context of what has now become an image-world — old definitions will have to change.

This short piece is dedicated to Michael Merovitz, a very old friend who died recently — a gentle, sweet and wonderful man whose premature death is a deep loss.