Stop with the Categorical Thinking Already!

Robert Sapolsky is a Stanford University neuroscientist. In this video he introduces a course he taught (7 years ago at least) on human behavioural biology to a freshman class. As he explains in this video, students don’t need any prerequisites for this course. They don’t need a science background. 

Although the course is called Introduction to Human Behavioural Biology, it’s about avoiding categorical thinking in science but also generally in life. 

Sapolsky is one of the most talented and entertaining lecturers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to and watching. I would have loved to have taken his course. It’s well worth watching this video in its entirety (57 minutes). The second video in the series is  1 hour and 37 minutes long, but again well worth the time to watch and re-watch. Aside from these YouTube videos Sapolsky was featured in a 2008 National Geographic video called Stress (available on YouTube) which I used in my classes. It compares olive baboons in Africa with stressed out British bureaucrats in Whitehall, London, the seat of the British civil service. 

If you want, you could watch the YouTube video now and after watching it continue reading below to see why I suggest you watch it. 

I’ve recently had to think about categorical thinking because of a comment made by a commentator to my blog who suggested, very innocently I’m sure, that it’s probable that older people get set in their ways. She wasn’t denigrating that outcome as she saw it suggesting that it’s likely natural (as I interpret her meaning). I had to think: is categorical thinking inevitable as we age and am I a ‘victim’ of categorical thinking? My answer to both questions is a categorical no! Categorical thinking is not inevitable and if there’s anything I have spent my whole career trying to avoid, it’s categorical thinking. 

At the moment I’m reading a (1999) book by Ellen Meiksins Wood called The Origin of Capitalism. Well, over the years I’ve read dozens of books on this topic from various perspectives within various disciplines. Every time I pick up a book, any book, I’m open to having my mind changed and my ideas modified. Otherwise, why read anything? In this case, Wood is presenting me with a viewpoint on the subject I haven’t seen before and I’m still wondering what to make of it. I keep shaking my head because her perspective is quite foreign to me. For one thing, she is focussed on the origins of capitalism. Capitalism is a word Marx never used. At best it refers to a political-economic system. When Marx discusses capital or the capitalist mode of production, he’s not referring to a system, but to a period in history. I have to re-read Wood to ensure that I understand her notions of capitalism and especially her contention that capitalism originated in English agrarian life. Equally strange is her use of the terms revolution and class. 

Reading Meiksins forces me to rethink categories. I will assess her perspective and incorporate it wholly or in part into my worldview or reject it based on the evidence. 

I just received another book in the mail today. It’s by R.D. Laing, one of favourite rogue psychiatrists. It was written in 1976, the year I entered grad school, and is entitled The Facts of Life.  After I’m done reading these books and watching more Robert Sapolsky on YouTube, something which always helps buoy my spirits, I’ll re-read Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Sapolsky is really high on this guy so I have to read it again in light of the video posted above. 

Please, enjoy Sapolsky. Find his other videos on YouTube. He’s a delight!

My Life As A Teacher: Part 4 Addendum 3: A Gentle Rogue History of North Island College from my Perspective.

I owe a great deal to North Island College. I worked there from 1983 until 2012. That’s quite a stretch. My time there was mostly fruitful (I got paid decently), challenging but exhausting too. It probably didn’t have to be that way, but it’s my nature I guess to never allow a vacuum on time in my life. Whatever time I have seems to be filled and if it isn’t I get to filling it as soon as possible.

I got the job at the college because I was an experienced sociology instructor who had taught a number of sociology courses, but who also taught the history of Québec at Douglas College, I was (am) bilingual, and I had experience with teaching studying techniques. In the context of a unique distance education organization that hired tutors rather than instructors, the president of the college soon realized that I could tutor a large number of course. And I did. Like I wrote in my last post, I tutored students from all over the north island in courses on sociology, anthropology, Canadian history, geography, French, and studying techniques. Eighteen courses in all.

At the time (1983) the college had a lot of what it called learning centres all over the place. Twenty-one in all if I recall. The main ones were in the Comox Valley, Campbell River and Port Alberni, but there were learning centres in Port Hardy, Port Alice, Port McNeill, Sointula, Alert Bay (ironically in the abandoned residential school), Cortes Island, Ucluelet, etc.. Just before my time the college also had mobile units that travelled to Denman and Hornby Islands, and a ship, a converted ocean-going tugboat called the Samarinda, that was supposed to bring education to the remotest places on a wild and wooly coast. That didn’t last long. The Samarinda’s propeller graces the foreshore park in Horseshoe Bay. The rest of the vessel is long gone. Meanwhile, the distance ed. thing rolled right along.

The college expanded into doing telecourses on the Knowledge Network. The first ‘tutor’ to take on the job was Michael Catchpole, a Port Alberni psychologist who did as I did and travelled to Vancouver to the Knowledge Network studios to do his thing at least once a week between September and May. We were followed by a couple of English instructors. We did that until 1992. The college also developed its own internal kind of television network after the Knowledge Network gig went bust. For example, I might be teaching a course in Courtenay which was being broadcast live to Port Alberni. That was a riot…literally. Controlling the remote site was a special challenge but the local students weren’t always thrilled with the arrangement either because they weren’t getting my full attention. I constantly had to remind myself that there were students out there that I couldn’t see in at least one other site, sometimes two other sites. Technically it was a constant challenge because we had no techs that were always available because they had more than one course to deal with themselves and they often worked with marginal equipment off the sides of their desks. Fun and games. But we carried on.

Getting back for a minute to the older days, the end of learning centres was entirely predictable. Small villages like Sointula couldn’t sustain a learning centre for long because once a group of students took a course, that was it. There was no second group ready to go in the next term. When the college finally closed the centre in Sointula I think the hue and cry could be heard from as far away as Port Alberni. In the early 90s, there was a coup at the college. Dennis Wing, the first president and the strongest advocate for distance education anywhere was turfed and Neil Murphy took over with the mandate of transforming the college into a conventional community college. In 1992 the college moved from a number of sites in Courtenay to its current campus on Ryan Road, a new facility was built on Roger Street in Port Alberni and Campbell River got a new campus in the same buildings as Timberline High School. I had to commute there every week to teach on that campus as well as in Courtenay. I even travelled to Port Alberni on occasion to be with my ‘remote’ students. Finally, I was the first instructor at the college to teach an entirely online course for students in the north island. I think I had eight students.

The college’s official history is pretty sparse and doesn’t tell anywhere near the whole story. For instance, it says nothing of our union organizing and the establishment of CUPE Local 3479 and The Federation of Post Secondary Educators Local 16 as the North Island College Faculty Association. I was its first president but only lasted a short time in that role because I was burnt out and headed for a health crash for which I had to take months off. That was not my most enjoyable time at the college. As far as I can see there’s one line in the official timeline about NIC and the Knowledge Network. Frankly that is a bit disappointing but the college doesn’t owe me anything. I got well paid and generally very well treated by the administration during the times I had to take time outs for health reasons. Of course, I’ve left out a lot of the juicy bits. Can’t tell all, of course. Lawsuits could ensue. But, mygawd, there’s a lot more to tell.

I should say in conclusion that I was awarded emeritus status at the college as I retired and I received two teaching awards in my time there, one for innovation in teaching and the other for teaching excellence from a group at the University of Texas at Austin dedicated to celebrating such things.

 

My Life as a Teacher: Part 4 Addendum 2: Live Television.

Jeez. As I posted my last few blog entries I kept remembering more and more incidents, situations and conditions about my life teaching. The whole thing was entirely unconventional. I’d need to write a book to include even a fraction of the goofy and bizarre things that happened along with the mundane.

When I taught sociology and studying skills on the Knowledge Network from 1897 to 1992, the conditions in the studio were as far removed from what went on in a classroom as can be in terms of physical environment. The studio was always super hot with huge lights needed to ensure good colour on the set. There were many people directly involved in the on-air production: 3 camera operators in the studio with me as well as the floor director, the overall director in the control room as well as a number of technicians overseeing the quality of the picture and other aspects of the production. Timing was extremely important. The floor director would count me down at the beginning of the hour but every segment of the program was timed to the second. At the end of the program the floor director would count me out.

Dan Moscrip was most often the director but others were also involved. My buddy Roger Loubert volunteered regularly to man the phones for the call-in section of the program. That was especially important because NIC was responsible for the production of the telecourses and no one came forward to pay for anyone to man the phones. Roger did a great job. Much appreciated. This was really live television on a shoestring.

After I did my thing in the studio, I would hop into my rental car and head into town with Roger sometimes. But I also did other things. I have lots of family in the Vancouver area but I had very little time to visit anyone. I did spend some time with my father-in-law who was in a long term care hospital conveniently located just steps away from the studios in Burnaby. Then I’d get back to the airport for my flight home and back to my ‘normal’ life.

NIC, at that time, was a distance education operation. I was considered a tutor and not an instructor. It was verboten to refer to ourselves as instructors and we didn’t have classes, we had study groups. Most of our students were spread all over the north island and we were in contact with them mostly by phone and by mail. When I started at NIC in 1983 I was put in charge of 18 courses as tutor in subjects ranging from Canadian History to French to studying skills, anthropology, geography and sociology. These were strangely fun times. It was really a lot of work keeping up with the content of so many courses so I could be in a position to answer student questions. A lot of the grading was handled by  tutors at Athabasca University in Alberta, where most of our packaged courses originated. I developed the studying skills courses myself on the basis of Tony Buzan’s program laid out in his book, Use Your Head. Tony later went on to head an international self improvement organization but his mother lived in White Rock and I had him on my program once. I’ll see if I can dig that up.

I think I’ll write at least one more post on my teaching experiences. There’s so much to tell. Stay tuned.

My Life as Teacher: Addendum

So, in my blog post on teaching I left out a major part of my teaching experience. That was writing and presenting 254 live-interactive telecourses on the Knowledge Network. These telecourses were North Island College courses, but used the Knowledge Network as the transmission medium. I started with a studying skills course then added another one to be followed by an introductory sociology course and then a second sociology course.

When I say that my courses were live-interactive, I mean that I went on live with only an 8 second delay. No rehearsals, no retakes. It also means that we opened the phone lines during most of broadcasts to entertain questions or comments from the audience, sometimes they were even my students. One of my favourite comments came from a guy living in Masset in Haida Gwai. He was obviously drunk, slurring his words, but he was able to get out a comment: “I think your program is a crock of shit!” I did the only thing I could do and entertained the next caller. Never a dull moment. Mostly I got kudos, even from people in prison. I had a number of students in prisons in Saskatchewan. My courses ran all over Western Canada and I had students from many small and large communities, close to a thousand one year. I think it was 1987 or 1988, I accounted for 10% of the college’s course enrolments.

I did my courses live from the Knowledge Network studios first at UBC then in Burnaby on Mathissi Place. I travelled to Vancouver mostly be plane, often a twin or single Otter, stayed in Vancouver overnight at a hotel close to the airport, did my shows then flew home. I did this every week during the Fall and Winter terms from 1987 until 1992. During the summers I worked on scripts and new material. I also was in charge of courses on campus too so I was a very busy guy.

I learned much later that some of my colleagues thought that I was getting extra money for doing the Knowledge Network work. Absolutely not. It was just part of my job. It was exciting to do  television teaching, but it was also exhausting and I paid for it health wise.

If you want, you can now transport yourself back to 1990, pretend you’re sitting in your living room with the TV on and my program comes on. This is what it was like:

Yes, you can have a laugh at my expense. I can take it.