Sooooo... "Social Foundations of Education." Or "Cultural Theories." Or whatever this class is called. (I'll call it "Cultural Theories" unless and until I decide otherwise. This class could be called a whole bunch of different things.)

That should give you an idea of what the class is like so far.

The experience so far -- one class, one night -- reminds me strongly of my first qualitative research methods class at MIT with Susan Silbey back in 2007. I have no idea what's going on -- and I love it, and I'm terrified, and I love the sort of terror that I feel. I'm an engineer sitting amongst a lot of education students, and they're using words I don't know... democracies, relational esthetics, neoliberalism, commodification, totalization -- I'm madly looking them up on Wikipedia as they talk, but I still can't figure out how to parse the context of their sentences.

I mean, I started taking notes, and they looked like this:

Neoliberalism is a perspective that looks at deregulating society and letting market forces and privatization dominate. It started in the 70's around the time of Thatcher and Reagan. (Before that, the attitude was liberalism.) This was a big global thinking shift, with consequences for government, military, education, etc. systems.

...and then I realized I had no idea what I was writing, and this wasn't helping me understand the conversation very much, and stopped, and let myself dunk into the immersion and accept that I was going to be confused.

And this is after I've read education theory and done qualitative work for a couple years. All that work, and I'm still a fish out of water here. But I love being a fish out of water. (Okay, I really have a love/hate relationship with it, but in the end, it's what I'd choose to do.) I want to always be willing to be a novice, even when I've reached the point of mastery in some things -- don't stay in safe ground too long, Mel. You don't grow much there.

Dr. Lather asked each student to come up with a question they'd like to pursue in the class. I gulped at first -- I have so little idea what this class is about that I didn't know where to start -- but she mercifully called the order so I went last, and I was able to listen to everyone else's questions ("what are the ethics of using these frameworks in research?" "how do I justify the democratic education theory?") long enough to formulate my own.

* poststructualist -- but what is that?
* open source, free culture, hacker/maker culture - very transparent.. open minded in some ways but not others
* engineering education, curriculum revisions -- professors trained in certain ways of thinking suddenly asked to examine the epistemology of their field and most probably don't know what that word means...

My question: What's the process of getting comfortable with the sort of boundary-shifting, perspective-flipping, deconstructivist thinking that it sounds like engaging with "cultural foundations" involves a lot of? I'm from a discipline that tends to like things very black-and-white (this is a highly simplified overgeneralization, but let's run with it); even if we acknowledge that much of the world is socially constructed, I feel like there's this desire to sit down and agree on what we're socially constructing -- so it's something we've "made up," but we made it up in a consistent and logical manner... which works for programming languages and materials specifications better than, er, other things, especially when they involve people. Nearly all the students in my department have engineering backgrounds and are encountering qualitative research for the first time, and as I watch them I feel -- this is my perception, anyway -- that there's a huge struggle, this resistance, this fear of the unfamiliarity and the letting go, that's very hard to do even for the people who want to do it.

Heck, I've been listening to the conversations in this class going "oh my gosh, I don't understand half these words," and noticing a little fear come up in me at that, and going "oh, isn't that interesting?" because I generally consider myself someone who likes rescrambling her mind, and who is good at it, seeks it out, and has done it many times -- but each time I do, it's always terrifying. I don't know if this is about making it less scary, or about finding better ways to deal with the scariness, or what it is -- but how do we help people, especially technical people, get more comfortable with playing with these sorts of ideas in this sort of way, so they don't get their defenses up, or so that they can recognize when they're activating their shields and choose to take them down? Because we're not going to really change the way we do things unless we can change the way we think and let some things in that we're afraid of and get ourselves to look at our own cultures of engineering, and get help looking at our own cultures of engineering, and see if that's really what we want it to be.

It's hard to learn to think a different way even when you're surrounded by people whose job it is to think in different ways and to teach you how to think in different ways (not a particular way, but different ways -- to be a shapeshifter, a chamelon, to gain the ability to change). It's even harder when you're surrounded by people who... don't do that. Whose job is to think in a certain way, and who largely don't have the time or support to look outside that box, and can't support you in it very well either. But I think this is the situation that many people in the engineering education world are in -- peeking out of the "engineering" world and trying to think in very "non-engineeringy" ways.

After 3 hours, I think they're talking in a language that I can someday use to explain the way we think, the way the hacker world operates... so my goal for this class is to find words for it, words to explain what's happening.

Intriguing snippets from class:

  • What are the factors that create hegemony? When everyone agrees that something is "the way it is," -- how does that sort of agreement come to pass?
  • It is hilarious to watch a professor critique her old work. I want to do that someday.
  • I love charts and tables about theory. I love looking at them and then breaking down all the ways in which they fail and don't capture the system ("the best model of a cat is a cat; preferably the same cat") -- but not as a "this sucks" critique, but as a "this is a starting point" rejoicing. The tables know they're incomplete, know they're "wrong," know they'll break down -- they ask you to break them down, beg not to be accepted at face value.
  • Binary thinking is not postmodern. Postmodern is antibinary, non-hierarchical... (although, I asked, isn't that in itself a binary statement? Yes, it is... we still have categories and boundaries, even if we try to make them more fluid... it's one of the uncomfortable paradoxes of postmodernism that's part of the challenge to embrace.)
  • There's a certain balance -- even if we want discomfort because we think we'll find new possibilities in it, we still need livable zones; we can't always be entirely in chaos.
  • Holy crap. Qualitative is about life. That's why I love it. Ripping apart my own brain, putting myself in dissonant places.
  • The phrase "productively lost" is a hit here.
  • "Discomfort comes with the territory, but on the other hand exhilaration comes with it as well." Yes, it does. That's why I'm here.
  • "Ethnography forces you try to get inside somebody else's meaning-making system."
  • "The past is a fiction of the present." A good reminder -- I've heard related thoughts before, that we rewrite and re-see history depending on what we want it to look like now.

My brain's exploding. I'm uncomfortable in a wonderful way. Yep. Let's go, Mel. This is where you want to be -- at least one night a week, this is where you want to be.