Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Nodes, metaphors, and learning

Thanks for the comments on my last post about the discussions at Grinnell organized around nodes. LionofZion raised some strong concerns about the value of discussions like these: in part because they seem to be trendy ways of talking about old things, and in part because of the loose use of language--that is, that just because people use the same words for something doesn't mean they are communicating. And thanks to Paula Smith from Grinnell for commenting. I appreciate it.

A quick response on the node idea, and then something a bit longer about metaphor in higher ed. I am sympathetic to LoZ's views on the loose use of language, which is often a sign of intellectual sloppiness. (My favorite George Orwell essay, "Politics and the English Language" is a bracing statement of exactly this view.) But I think that the word "node" is exact evidence of the value of conversations based on similarity, if not agreement.

It is true that a node in the brain, and a node on the internet, and a node in a city are very different things. But it is also the case that exchanges between partisans of these types of nodes has given us some much larger insights about learning and organization. In each instance, it is repetition of use that strengthens the node, not the quality of the node itself. So it matters less how good the stimulus is (beyond a point, of course) and more about how the new input connects to older pathways be they roads, websites, or axons. In a system organized by nodes, control is decentralized. This is good news, potentially, because it means that weakness in one area can be compensated for by strengthening another. And it means that would-be controllers, have they good or ill intentions, are less likely to assert dominance for the long run. Taken together, then, a node-view of the world provides suggestions on how to bring about change and about how influence (as opposed to power) is organized. This is a very old view of the world, one that dates to the period of the vedas in India. But contemporary society seemed to have forgotten it until the node conversation got re-started.

Of course a node, or the topics that Grinnell used as nodes, are metaphors. And thinking about the comments to the post, coupled with a debate on campus about the proper role of administrators, and my reading of a great new book, has gotten me thinking about what metaphors do in higher ed.

(The book, for whatever it is worth, is Paul Knitter's Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian. In it Knitter notes how religious language is essentially metaphorical, and then plays out how certain Christian metaphors have been mis-understood, either by reading them literally or by ignoring the implications of certain interpretations. For Knitter, Buddhism's emphasis on practice and its distaste for dogma can help Christians make meaning out of their lives and thus revive their religious language.)

Since Knitter's book is on my mind, let me use an example to describe the roles of metaphors. Take "God is love." What does a metaphor like that do? Here are several things:

1. It puts words onto experience that is hard to communicate otherwise. God is love is a way of saying that I felt something that feels like love and comes from my experience with the transcendent.

2. It allows people to see new characteristics of old things. The loving Christian God is quite a contrast from the God of the Old Testament--he metaphor makes that contrast clearer.

3. It re-groups things together that once weren't. If God is love, what do we do with the other manifestations of love--friendship, lust, companionship, etc. The metaphor asks us to consider how those things are linked to God.

4. In the re-grouping it implies a set of values that might otherwise get overlooked.

5. Metaphors have histories. Overlooking the history means overlooking some of the meaning.

In all of these ways, metaphor is an opening to conversation, not a closing. Of course, by being an opening it is also an invitation to public confusion and public debate. Metaphors always stand part way between description and dissembling.

Educators ought to be as alive to metaphors as theologians. Take some of our most basic language in higher ed. What do you call the regular gathering of students in a room? Is it a class or a course? Choose one and your focus is on geography or location. Choose the other and it is on movement or process. Or do students have majors, fields of study, or disciplines? One suggests hierarchy (major over minor), another location again, and another behavior.

The list of metaphors could go on and on. (Are you a professor? A teacher? An instructor? A coach? A facilitator?) But the Inside Higher Ed piece on Grinnell's nodes has made me think that we would be well-served to examine some of our old metaphors as well as searching for new ones. Perhaps they would serve us better if we thought publicly about what they do.

I would be particularly interested in exploring what the titles of faculty, staff, students, and administrators imply about how campuses get along and do they work they do. We could stand to revisit them.


lionofzion said...

I'm going to have to disagree with part of your religious interpretation. For Jesus and his disciples (and I hope for us) the God of the Old Testament IS the God of the New Testament. And when John says that God is love, he's using language developed in the Psalms, and in the prophetic works of among others Isaiah, Hosea and Amos. God is the bridegroom and Israel the bride.

It's perhaps easy to let the judgment of the Old Testament and the redemption of the New seem like different things, instead of different sides of the same thing. But I'd urge you to re-read the Old Testament looking for God's love, and the New Testament looking for his harder judgments, and I think you'll be surprised by what you see. While I don't think we can emphasize enough that God is love, I also think it's important to remember that his judgments are rooted in his love for those we harm. And he is the same to Jesus as he is to Moses.

lionofzion said...

Also, on the subject of whether we'd forgotten nodes: They're definitely not our main way of viewing the world, but I think the social justice traditions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi (among many others) demonstrate a key way in which this idea of interconnectedness continues to impact our ways of thinking. The center of these teachings is that we cannot isolate ourselves from injustice done to others, but also that by individually being more just we can have an impact upon apparently separate parts of society.

But these are minor cautions. This post has really offered me a lot to think about, and a lot to expand on. I think a nodal way of thinking has a lot to recommend it for the teaching of history, and would really shake up that discipline. And thinking carefully about the meaning of our metaphors has long-reaching implications in nearly every area of life.