Finally back to liveblogging my classes! (Ah, it's good to have my Readiness mostly behind me.)

This week's readings are about reflection in design -- which works just fine with me, since I love most anything with the prefix "meta-". Most of them are by Donald Schoen, although I know the work of his wife Nancy far better. I wouldn't mind deep-diving into (either) Schoen's work more -- but this week it's Donald's turn, since we're reading selections from The Reflective Practitioner, which start out explaining the limits of Technical Rationality (a hardline separation of "theory" from "practice") and introducing this idea of reflection-in-action, which basically means thinking about something while you do it.

It's hard for me, sitting here in 2012 as a graduate of an excellent undergraduate engineering design education, to appreciate how significant and new this thought must have been nearly 30 years ago. I don't think we recognized and honored tacit knowledge much -- at least not in formal academic settings. If you couldn't write it down, how could you know it? I wonder how the fine and performing arts fared in universities -- I remember Shannon McMullen's explanation of how people today are still  trying to figure out what it means to get a PhD in Art that doesn't involve writing a massive Art History paper.

Q 49: When we go about the spontaneous, intuitive performance of the actions of everyday life, we show ourselves to be knowledgeable in a special way. Often we cannot say what it is that we know. When we try to describe it we find ourselves at a loss, or we produce descriptions that are obviously inappropriate. Our knowing is ordinarily tacit, implicit in our patterns of action and in our feel for the stuff with which we are dealing. It seems right to know that our knowing is in our action.

Okay, so the tacit-knowledge stuff comes from Polyani (whoI haven't read in years and need to take a closer look at). But still! Schoen starts describing...

Q 54-55: ...we can think about doing something while doing it... When good jazz musicians improvise together, they also manifest a "feel for" their material and they make on-the-spot adjustments to the sounds they hear...

P 55: Schoen goes on to elaborate on how the musicians are aided by a common schema (harmony, metre, etc) and their personal repertoire of musical figures -- they've got the pieces and some ground rules for how to put them together, so they can improvise in the putting-together.

P 76: The title of the 3rd chapter is "Design as a Reflective Conversation with the Situation," which nicely describes the jazz analogy -- except instead of other musicians, sometimes you're playing with artifacts, a space, ideas, and other people. Architects are in conversation with their landscape, athletes with their sneakers, their teammates, the court, the ball.

He also starts explaining an interesting thread that I'll spin off on here: right now, design (and a lot of new and emerging work, for that matter) is pretty tacit. Often we know things about design somehow, we can look at things and tell whether they're right  -- but we don't know why they're right, or what right means, or how we know. Now, that's not to say we should stop there -- we can sometimes figure out our processes with more clarity. But we do need to start that process by honoring the tacit, by saying "yes, there's something there -- even if we can't write it down, and maybe never will be able to." At least I think so.

When describing the structure of reflection-in-action, Schoen uses a tactic that I pull off frequently: take two case studies from wildly different worlds, so diverse that people think what the heck could these have in common? and then show what they have in common. Voila, structure! In particular...

Q 129: [When engaged in reflection-in-action], the practitioner approaches the practice problem as a unique case. He does not act as though he had no relevant prior experiences; on the contrary. But he attends to the peculiarities of the situation at hand... [He does not behave] as though he were looking for cues to a standard solution. Rather, [he] seeks to discover the particular features of his problematic situation, and from their gradual discovery, designs an intervention... tries to make sense of the problematic situation he is encountering at secondhand. The situation is complex and uncertain, and there is a problem in finding the problem.

There's one particular practice that's helped me a lot with reflection-in-action. Schoen calls it

P 133: the idea of "keeping inquiry moving" (as a way to aid reflection-in-action)

...and I just did it a ton during my Readiness Assessment. Write out loud, think out loud -- keep moving, don't get stuck, keep your fingers streaming words across the page, if you get lost, write about being lost, write about being tired or stuck or frustrated, write through that and you're likely to come out the other side.

Andy Dong's paper, "The Enactment of Design Through Language," is... harder to understand. I mean, the second sentence in the abstract requires a dictionary even for me:

Q 5: If language metonymically refers to design by intertwining with designers in an ontological circuit of recognition that harnesses and represents that which can be conversed and said, does language itself participate in the enactment of design?

Um. What?

I think this translates to: "Does language help design come into being? Here's a nifty thought: maybe the things we write and say are actually stand-in references to design. How would that work? Well, language is being used to recognize designers as being designers -- and designers are the ones that speak and recognize that language as being valid, as being about design, or whatever. We've got a sort of reciprocal circle going on here, don't we? When these designers use words to represent and recognize their design activities, they're using the power of being able to say things, and they're also painting this space in which many other sorts of things could be said (even if they don't have time to do it right there and then)."

...or something like that. But I think he's saying fascinating things, like this "performativity" stuff I hadn't seen before.

Q 6: That language does design rather than merely represents design is fundamentally the concept of performativity. The theory of the performativity of the language of design claims that language performatively enacts design through: (1) aggregation - to blend ideas and concepts; (2) accumulation -- to scaffold ideas and concepts; and (3) appraisal -- to evaluate and assess ideas and concepts. Through these performative aspects, the language of design enacts design and actualizes the designed work.

Clearly I need to look into this "performativity" thing more, because my own work is about the importance of exposing discourse -- which implies discourse is important to expose. And why? Because discourse is practice, and not just for actors and writers and folks of that ilk. Discourse within practice is practice -- Lave and Wenger's book, Situated Learning, points out that practitioners tell each others stories about their experience as practitioners, and this plays an important role in learning in communities of practice. Talking "about" your practice is an integral part of talking "within" it.

Q 109: "For newcomers then the purpose is not to learn from talk as a substitute for legitimate peripheral participation; it is to learn to talk as a key to legitimate peripheral participation." (Situated Learning)

But not all talk-about-a-practice belongs to that practice. There's a difference between learning-to-be and learning-about.

Q 107-108: "...didactic instruction creates unintended practice. The conflict stems from the fact that there is a difference between talking about a practice from the outside and talking within it. Thus the didactic use of language, not itself the discourse of practice, creates a new linguistic practice, which has an existence of its own. Legitimate peripheral participation in such linguistic practice is a form of learning, but does not imply that newcomers learn the actual practice the language is supposed to be about." (Situated Learning)

Performativity, I learn in a bit of further reading, is part of cultural theory. Good. I'm taking that class in Ohio next semester and I hope it will come up then. (It probably will. Dr. Lather seems huge on the use of language for enactment.)

In the meantime (to put in a bit more of my own reflection-in-action), I'm struggling with Dong's paper in a lightly frustrating and exhilarating way. Maybe I'm tired, maybe it's late (it's late). Maybe it's because I'm coming to it with a brain that's not quite primed for that sort of writing -- a style which reminds me very much of Dr. Lather's papers, by the way. I love the trickiness of its density, the thick weaving of words; the way it webs into and references a multitude of theories -- tight dance steps it expects the reader to keep up with. It's precisely the frustration of the puzzle that delights me. It's like unpacking a Bible verse, or reading The Waste Land -- there's a complex panoply of flavors there that can't be simply separated without losing something; you've got to work until you can understand it more and more and more richly.

But at the same time: if I have to work at understanding this, how many people is it actually accessible to? As a high school student reading The Waste Land for the first time, I thought it was the dumbest poem -- I'd encountered it without context, and pretty much reacted with a what the hell was T. S. Eliot smoking? because I didn't catch the many multilayered references until my teacher told me to go back and look up some stuff (after which I thought the poem was frickin' brilliant). It's like missing inside jokes -- staring blankly at the final episode of a long-running TV show that brings back actors from all the seasons, wondering "who the heck are all these people, and why do they all have to be in the hospital at the same time?"

So... if we think of reflection-in-action as having a little slider labeled "understandability," what does playing with that slider do? Does language "enact design" (or enact whatever it enacts) if nobody understands the language? What's the value of a reflection that's only pertinent to the practitioner reflecting (which is sometimes the best choice!) What's the interplay with that and my ideas about radical transparency -- should people make even their "incoherent" reflections-in-action public? (Maybe, even if it's incoherent to you, it's coherent to someone else -- friends have noted patterns in my braindumps that I'd never have seen myself.)

I'll stop at that for the night.