Wednesday, March 3, 2010


This piece in Inside Higher Ed argues that there are intellectual nodes that are fruitful sites for discussion across the disciplines, and that those nodes might also be a location for learning (or at least teaching). Grinnell College has been having discussions about what the right nodes are, and how they might influence learning there. I read this just after participating in a workshop about community building, one of the points of which was that cities and brains also function best when they have healthy, well-connected nodes. (See Steven Johnson's Emergence for a great discussion.)

Lots to consider about nodes. Here are some of my questions:

1. Does Grinnell have the right nodes? If you asked students what the intellectual nodes of their learning are, what would they say?

2. How are discussions like the nodes discussion more/less fruitful than those that are directly about curriculum and programming?

3. What are the other key types of nodes for learning? What are they physical nodes? Who are the people that act like nodes? Do they deserve the same sort of care and attention that intellectual nodes do?

4. In an age focused on connection, what about this point, made by philosopher Alain de Botton, that we may need fewer nodes (at least if online connections can be considered nodes) and more fasting--limiting our intake of ideas in order to improve our thinking and our lives?


lionofzion said...

One thing I'd like to say is that I don't think the word node is necessary to describe these-- I think having a new term is mainly a way of wrapping up something that was old and common-sense to make it seem new, hip, innovative. And maybe having such a term is essential to getting heard in higher ed today, but I sure hope not.

The useful thing about this whole idea is the realization that one word can have several different meanings, and that looking at all of the meanings may help us understand better what we're talking about at the moment. The problem I see with using the term 'node' for this phenomenon is that node happens to have many different meanings, and it's easy to be not so careful about differentiating between them. This blog post alone uses node to mean words with plural meanings in different disciplines, but also discusses nodes in the sense of meeting places in a city and nodes are moments of internet interaction without properly addressing the fact that these are three completely different things, which can be described using one word because of chiefly metaphorical similarities-- it's dangerous to equate them, just as it would be dangerous to use a word shared by chemists and political scientists as if it meant the same thing to both of them.

Also, if you asked students what the intellectual nodes of their learning are, they would stare at you blankly. If you asked them what words and concepts they've seen cross disciplines, and what value they get out of looking at the similarities in how those words/concepts function between disciplines, they would give you a much more meaningful answer. You wouldn't get the trendy feeling of the new language, but I bet you'd have a far more fruitful discussion.

Sorry, this is a bit too much of a rant/diatribe. I'll have to think about how to phrase my thoughts and feelings on this more fully and carefully, and get back to you.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am the author of the Grinnell article and just want to clarify that we are using nodes not for just any "word that can have several different meanings," but specifically for a word that functions as a so-called term of art in more than one intellectual discipline. We're interested in how concepts are captured by terminology and how we can release them into interdisciplinary conversations. There is no master list of nodes for Grinnell College students, but we hope for a lot of dialogue on how this process works.

Bryce said...

Your last question (relating to Botton's idea of fasting) was intriguing to me. I wasn't able to read the primary source (the link seems to be broken), but I think Botton is on to something. Too many weak or superficial connections, be it with ideas, people or places, can be problematic. We don't have to look far to see the effects of this on our campuses. For example, "wired" classes and widespread use of laptops could be considered a boon because of students' increased access to outside material/resources that can supplement class discussions. Contrastingly, surfing from one wikipedia entry to another, interspersed with tweet notifications could prevent them from engaging in dialogue during a class session.

It seems that the challenge for those of us in education is to help learners identify a manageable set of nodes for their learning and then provide opportunities for those sorts of connections to occur. And, like Botton argues, intellectual "fasting" wherein a learner unplugs and spends dedicated, uninterrupted time with a discrete idea or concept seems to be important in having the intellectual capital necessary to make the sorts of connections we hope for.