Monday, March 18, 2019

Practicum: Teaching Critical Thinking In The Machine Age


Quantum theory. Meditation. Grammar. Greek Rhetorical Theory. Bad jokes. Philosophy. Ethics. Hot Fuzz. What do all these things have in common? An unorthodox approach to freeing our students' voices.


In the past few semesters of teaching I have radically altered my curricular approach -- not only in my writing classes but across the board. Whereas I previously felt as though I was sneaking illicit material into the classroom when I addressed various issues of quantum theory, conceptions of the "self" and or consciousness, now I am quite certain that these are not only useful but perhaps essential elements of a student's ability to access and participate in their own personal education (whether in the classroom or beyond) on a level neither they nor I would have imagined. 

What perhaps I will post later on with their permission is the responses to how these sorts of critical thinking, action, and writing exercises have affected the lives of these students far beyond my classroom -- both in terms of how they are approaching and "succeeding" in their other efforts both academically and professionally, with interpersonal relationships, and in terms of creating and sustaining an inner critical monologue about the world and their actions in it. What you will find, however, at the bottom of this article is my students' open, unguarded responses to a meditation assignment. I could discuss at length the metaphysical reasons for this unconventional "homework" -- but the truth is that at its core I have begun to use it as a tool to help students who are scared or simply unfamiliar with the act of critical thinking to first slow themselves down from the external stimuli and white noise that so frequently makes up their lives from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep.

I ease them into the assignment with a discussion about their own patterns of thinking and action, and in particular, of the balance of "input" to silence or creative processing of any type. I define "input" as any time during the day in which they are operational non-critical participants in classrooms, social situations, and jobs, as well as times in which they are watching tv, listening to music, or otherwise engaged on a surface level, without reflection. For most students it is 100% or close -- with some, in particular those of nonwestern religions, involved in reflection, supplication or prayer; even in these cases it is all too often rote, ritualised procedures performed for the benefit of family without personal connection (and in these cases, guilt and confusion are frequently additional symptoms). It is the first time that most of these students consider that it is not only okay, but essential to their well being (masquerading in outfits of "success" both personal and academic) that they listen to and hear their own voices -- and that they will only become good writers when they free these voices, and attune them to critical ways of perceiving and thinking...(not to mention, that vocabulary, grammar, complex constructions and idiomatic expressions will come with practice...and with reading, more than anything else.) 

It is a certainty that the widespread issues we have with plagiarism are a direct result of this disconnect -- without a critical understanding of reading, the process of deconstructing and approaching texts (whether literary or scientific) becomes sphinx-like, closed and puzzling to the student who wishes only to do well, often with the pressure of scholarships or visas riding on the maintenance of a solid GPA. Faced with doing badly with an assay at their true abilities, the prospect of having someone with the skills do a paper for you is very appealing -- as is the middle road between these two: a decollage of rearranged, poorly paraphrased texts, as cacophonous as a spoken choral arrangement -- where the voices are the autotuned, barely altered ones of the cited authors, the student's own far from present. 

There will always be some students who are deeply committed to shirking responsibilities, for a variety of reasons. Of course, many of these students have other issues with critical thinking, too -- one of which is endemic to our society: they are stuck in a mindset where school/work = punishment, an idea that is deeply forcefed via almost all our institutions, by the way, and which is engrained far beyond the academy...TGIF ring a bell for anyone? But, in this case, too often it is fear of punishment and/or of an antiquated grading system that doesn't encourage working through such issues that is at the heart of this pandemic, especially when students are responsible for holding other jobs and taking care of their families, as so many of mine are. It isn't being a "softie" but being realistic as well as compassionate to these students that suggests that a radical course of action (and curriculum) is necessary -- one that encourages a fear-free environment in which real, lasting, critical thinking skills can be learned, and where attempts to make the mistakes necessary for this learning is encouraged, rather than spurned.

Contrary to appearances, I had no intention of including these often radical methodolies in my curricular design. In fact, my original syllabi reflect my own relationship to academic settings in which entrance to an undergraduate institution required di rigeur at least a basic facility with critical reading and thinking. But I found this desperately, and terrifyingly lacking in my students, so many of whom tripped over themselves to make sure they were doing "what I wanted," that I often felt myself to have been inadvertantly appointed to a regime, and not at a blackboard where I sought personal, internal, and thoughtful work. Thoughts were out the window for these kids, in so far as they were doing as I wished, without error. I admit to shellshock -- and to scrambling, those first semesters, to realign myself with their deep and basic needs for these skills -- thoroughout their college experience.

Much of this approach, therefore, was generated in response to not at all a personal desire to forward any sort of anti-establishment doctrine... far from it, even though at times I worry that the task forces will show up in my classroom. (Ammiel, can you hear me?) Rather, it was a somewhat shocked response to the unbelievably thick conditioning of my students to come in and perform their academic tasks as rote operations on the road to a eventual goal of degree and hopefully money, uncritical participants in not only their own education but many many other choices in their lives as well. 

Central to this curricular thrust is a focus on unlearning as much as anything else: not on establishing new points of "fact" or fixity of belief, but exposure to new ways of perception. The class has been compared to a bootcamp in which students are exposed, gently, to their lack of critical abilities and how this affects them in school and out (via discussions of bias and slant in writing taken at face value, discussions about rhetoric, and so forth), given a healthy dose of humor in acknowledging and realising that "good writing" is only ever true contextually, for both fictional and functional means (ie: a doctor cannot use their academic resume to get a job at Starbucks, no matter how well its written), and eventually come to see communication as something to be done in their own voices, contextually altered as necessary, with a critical eye and ear to the subject and audience at hand.

ly: 'times new roman';">When I think about the lack of focus on teaching and fostering critical thinking in the large majority of K-12 schools (not to mention higher education, but this is a conversation for another time), I am deeply saddened... if not surprised. The point -- and a subject of one of the introductory sessions of my critical thinking and writing curricula -- is to be found at the juncture where "Education" and "Training" diverge.

I introduce here the theory (entirely new to most of these students) that much of their time in school is only referred to as "Education" because it has become a standardized linguistic rubric for a civil insitution, (now largely privatized, even in the public sector) -- much as one might refer to any tissue as "Kleenex," irregardless of brand.

The Machine Paradigm of the modern world is strongly predicated on the Fordist concept of production, in which labor is divided not only into groups of trained artisans, as per the guild systems but instead on the functional Division of Labor, in which each operator provides a single, repetitive service, in only one segment of the chain of command. 

"Kleenex Brand Education" can be seen, then, as that which trains and provides masses of individuals in preparation for assumption of their own "professional" segments of this larger Machine (or, operating civil society). Keeping these professions (and their training programs) seperate both in the classroom and the office/lab/workplace is an element of maintaining control -- for things staying, operation wise, the way they are. To bring some levity to this serious discussion, I direct your attention to the running joke (and sacrifices made for) "The Greater Good" in the movie Hot Fuzz, in which a local town committee is so fanatical about the image of its clean, crime free, and pretty city that its luminaries conspire to treachery of numerous ilk in order to preserve this image -- at the cost of lives, decency, and truly addressing the city's current reality. But that humor is bittersweet, for it smacks of the flavor of so many decisions in both Professional and Academic circles.

Critical thinkers, this theory holds, are a danger to a smoothly running machine -- of which the Institution that is "Kleenex Brand Education" is only a part, if surely a central, essential generator. To continue mining this film for the effective metaphor it ultimately represents, the critical thinker is found in the protaganist of the story, Sargeant Angel: unpopular and nearly run out of town for perceiving the situation differently than the established norm, thinking outside the box, and choosing to address larger issues beyond his established station. A similar fate befalls those who assist him, which goes beyond metaphor to uncover not only kernels but entire ears of truth.

The students are asked, then, to critically examine the difference between these words and their meaning: what is Training? and, what is Education? and, which do you think you have been getting? I remind them that they are not only receivers of Input but so too participants in their own education, brand be damned. Even if the "story" of their academic experience is slanted, written in careful and inscrutible rhetorical circles around their heads,for reasons that are beyond their critical comprehension in many ways, that they begin to seek transparency -- to understand the why and how of their actions, and choose and address these with intention and energy.

In physics there is a theory about how frequencies work, referred to as "entrainment" -- a theory that is the technical embodiment of the old adage, "hang out with cripples and you'll begin to limp." Long story short, it suggests that objects in flux, in which there is a wave form of energy frequency, will become similar to others in proximity -- the "resonance" of these objects, beings, or molecules, as it were, will begin to "entrain" -- to move at the same speed, to have similar, if not identical, energy patterns, wave-wise. So too do we feel this in ourselves as humans, as the adage suggests: if we enter a room where a fight has taken place, it hangs in the air. In a crowd of riled up people, so too do we feel ourselves riled (even if the cause is not our own). 

Translated to our role in our own educational journeys, and furthermore to our positions in the machine, if we are always on the "Input" channel, so too do we begin to "entrain" to the speed and rhythms of that whole. But when we stop and acknowledge our own rhythms -- those perhaps which are more in tune with those of our natural body and the natural bodies that surround us, both flora and fauna (other people very much included) -- we have the potential to back up production of a normative status quo. It's world changing, from the inside out, and its very much legitimate -- more than a GPA could ever aspire to. 

The idea that there is a personal "resonance" or resevoir of energy, desire, or ability in each person that has legitimacy and the right to freely question and approach the world in an unconfined way is a revelation -- it took me taking a step back PhD program to find out why I was so unhappy with the strangulation of my personal truth and voice that academia can so often appear to desire for me to recognize this deep lack in myself, too. After years of refined, if confined, critical thinking in the service of a presumed "goal" or "success" I found in the redevelopment of my curriculum the tools to free my own voice, and my own education, beyond the ivied walls and esteemed corridors. Every day I know my students teach me as much as I teach them. They are a blessing.

Student responses to meditation: young people acknowledge, address, and voice

These are some student responses to an assignment that is essentially meditation, but is quite simply a 20 minute "silence" session with no inputs allowed. I try not to give them any ideas of what "should" happen though clearly many have some familiarity with the idea, and even the practice, as a Burmese student writes below. These are lovely, frank statements of self-reflection, a phenomena often unheard of in this setting, and I am proud to share them with you. Most are not native English speakers, and hail from all over the world.

About the silence exercise: As one of us said, silence tends to wake up hidden questions we try to avoid, but for me it was things in the now, they were more existential questions. Since I was a kid, about 11 i had a question in mind that really scares me... what would I be if I wasn't alive? Immediately, I think of darkness and dust, but the dust disappears and then nothing, only darkness. It troubles me because it tells me that no matter how hard you try, at the end, we are simply nothing... 

Steven Pineda


I did it and it made me feel relaxed. This kind of exercises are really good when you feel tired and
stressed. I had been feeling very stressed in these days because of the final exams and final projects, and after I did this exercise, I felt a little stressed and helped me not think about the finals at least for ten minutes. The experience from this exercise is that giving us  a time in which we can forget all problems and not to think about anything can really help us relaxed and take a breath to continue with our lives.

Edwin Mendoza

Oh!! I almost forgot the meditation experience!! Well, I did it a couple of times and it really worked!!!  I experience a 'self emptiness'(I think I just made up this word, lol)what I'm trying to say is that I feel my body is empty and I am able to stop thinking about all the stuff going on in my head when I focus on my breathing. I fill up my stomach and chest with air and then let it go slowly, that works!!! After 10 minutes I feel great, when I start walking again I feel I am really there. It is a kind of a weird feelings but feels great so that's good news.

Martin Saldarriaga

…about the meditation part. I think that is such a good exercise. I like to practice that especially because it helps to relax and sleep better. When we were doing that in class, I felt like I was traveling to the space. And it is even better when we are dreaming at that particular moment because I feel like everything I have dreamt for, at that moment is coming to be true. It is just fun.

David Junco

The meditation was pretty difficult for me to do. One reason it is because I have no idea what to really expect. I can not "clear" out my mind, all I have is a whole bunch of thoughts at the same time. Daydreaming is an easier thing to do, especially when I am doing something that bores me. When I daydream, I am able to focus on one thought so deeply that can actually last a while. Is that what meditation suppose to feel like?

Rene Alvino

After a whole busy and frustrating day I had, I sat down and tried to do 10 min of meditation. It sounds funny but from what I remember, I kept thinking about what it would feel like to achieve nirvana. I remember my Buddhism professor once taught us, when you meditate, you are supposed to clear out your mind completely, don't chase any of your thoughts. I don't know if it's really possible to do that. Thoughts kept coming in while I was meditating, then I dropped it when I realized I was chasing my thoughts. But when I focus too much on NOT starting any thoughts, doesn't that also mean my brain is being occupied? To distract myself from thought chasing, I started counting my breath. For some reason I got nervous because I felt like I was trying to control my breathing and my breathing pattern was all messed up (lol). Overall, I don't think this is a very successful experience. Although there might be gaps in between thoughts, or, it could be highway hypnosis (like what Michael said). I might've felt a little more calm afterward, but I feel that if you just sit and stare into space for couple of mins or take a shower can also give you the same effect.

Chao Hong Cen

I did meditation before so it didn’t take me so long to get concentrated. First I closed my eye s and focused on the darkness I saw. Then I felt the tiny little shocks running through my arms to head. I extended this feeling to my finger tips. The lower body is usually the last part I can feel. When I felt my feet and arms, I tried to relax my body. I felt the muscle of my body was relaxed and less tense.

YeFeng Chen

Meditation. I’m actually very glad you’re bringing up this very important matter of silence and stillness in the midst of a stressful and rushed environment, since I see it as something that’s so crucial in life, so thanks so much. For the past few months I’ve actually been looking into this and have been trying it out. Ever since the weather got warmer, I’ve been finding time to stroll through St. Nicholas Park looking for places where I can just sit and be still. And I’ve actually found some excellent areas, that if you have time one day next week, I wouldn’t mind showing you. It’s among the big rocks and trees in the park, and the area is relatively secluded, while you can still look out onto the green lawn and enjoy the squirrels, birds, dogs, and people running around or lying down. As the weather gets better, I think that area is soon going to be one of my most favorite hangout spots, just to be quiet and meditate on Scripture. So I meditate and read the Bible all the time, mostly trying to do it in the mornings before class so I am always refreshed and ready to go through the rest of my day.

Johnson Ho

Quantum and Buddhist (just my person[al] feeling)

After I attended the lecture from Professor Kaku and red the Quantum reality, all I think about is Buddha. In my personal opinion, quantum physics proved that the Buddha’s teachings. Quantum physicists believe that the world does not exist and everything that is in the world are atoms and empty space. There are no real shapes or forms of anything.  In the Buddhist philosophy, Buddha has said 

Anicca : That all things are impermanent.

  Dukkha): That all beings suffer from all situations due to unclear mind.

  Antata : That the perception of a constant "self" is an illusion. (None of the religions teach this other than Buddhism)

Also, the energy conservation concert is related with the Nirvana. According to the theory, energy can not create or destroyed but transfer. In the Einstein’s theory (E=mc^2), all mass can converted to the energy. So plants, human and other materials in the earth are basically the energies.  Regard on this, how is it possible that god created everything?  Why he didn’t create everyone equal and why some of the species are vanished from the earth for no reason?  In Buddhism, there is a reincarnation which is all organisms can reborn as a same living thing or different forms (same thing with the energy transfer in that case, energy can be lose or gain). Nirvana (state of being free from both suffering and the cycle of rebirth) could be the revolution for energy conservation. It is very impossible for right now because many people have believed in energy conservation system and since you believe this theory, there will not be other religions is trustful than [ed: as truthful as] Buddhism.

Meditation discussion

I didn’t take it as the homework because it is my daily work. I have been doing it since I was 10. I was very impressed that you teach us about the meditation and gave the class as homework. From my meditation experience, when I was around 18, I was doing meditation at one night. I was deeply focused on my breathing and I didn’t know my mother was near me. After I finished, I saw her and she was wondering and told me that I was not breathing for long time.

I am so glad that you meditated too. There are many techniques of meditation based on the focus. Those meditation styles in western countries are no more than normal exercise which can help your blood regulation and yours concentrative. I would like you to try the meditation that Eastern people (especially Buddhism) which are more deeply and more affective. I am planning to attend the meditation camp in the summer and I would like you to join it. The lectures are given by the monks. They give in English and Burmese so that you don’t need to worry about it.
Kyaw Ko


About the Writer

L DeSilva-Johnson is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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9 comments on Practicum: Teaching Critical Thinking In The Machine Age

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on May 27, 2009 at 12:04 am

Who are you, anonymous voter? Many of us come on here to check out our stories to see if there is commentary in the days following publication -- like a mama hen watches her eggs. Suddenly, my rating for this article went down to 3.5, very low I think. I wish people who had negative comments or ratings would say something about it -- I cannot help but have a notion that others who feel they have been "insulted" or "critiqued" by me are possibly behind this, but who knows -- what is the point of a low rating without criticism? How does the author or editor know the reasons behind your judgement? Do you seek any accountability? I cannot abide by this. FEH!

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on May 28, 2009 at 12:20 am

Absotively and posilutely. I just looked him up and cannot wait to delve into "Bohm Dialogue"... any specific suggestions? Thanks for the tip!!!

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By Lady D on May 28, 2009 at 10:56 am

Thank you for helping kids to think. Through the inner we create the outer. Fred Allen  Wolf is great for kids or anybody else who is new to Quantum Physics.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on May 28, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Thanks Lady D!!! Look at this community go. Share share share! (cher? are you there? ...for a minute I had a beetlejuice moment.)

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on May 29, 2009 at 08:46 pm

Again, to my anonymous commentors, I say, who are you? Let me have a dialogue with you! and these aren't run on sentences, they are simply complexly constructed. 

I'm an editor and an english teacher, and I know the difference.

Hmm, as far as "deserving" concise (by that you mean, what, declarative?) sentences, I turn your attention to Faulkner. I'm pretty sure some of those sentences were almost a page long. Generations of readers seem ok with it, too.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on May 30, 2009 at 02:11 pm

But to Craig, AWESOME. Thank you. 

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on May 31, 2009 at 10:10 am

Morgana, thanks for the comments. (ps @ craig: I KNOW, right? -- he is in Reno, do you actually know eachother? Is there a private joke there.... are you actually married!?)

I'm glad to hear about the drop in plagiarism and cheating on your end -- especially since it appears to be on the rise everywhere I look, fueled by ever increased access to shared information, papers, cheat guides for calculator use in math, for phone use otherwise, et cetera -- of course stoked by the internet fire (if anything, the characteristic medium of this new generation)... In general, I wouldn't say there's a particular word that categorizes my students, even if they are generationally "Milennials" but in this case, perhaps at the root of this is the fact that the student body of City College of New York (where I teach) is heavily, heavily international, supplemented by foreign born or second generation immigrant children, with a smattering from families that have been in the US longer -- most of whom are also from depressed neighborhoods (something the school is workign on balancing out). Many of these students are socio-economically and culturally vastly different from many in their age-generation in terms of access to information, tools, customs, and patterns that might align them with that peer group. Like the term "baby boomers," "millenials" really only applies to the most general characteristics of (mostly) American born children from that era -- American children of immigrants, and foreigners far from fit the category, then as now. Don't you agree?

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By Edward on May 31, 2009 at 06:08 pm

As teachers, maybe you can tell me why I don’t read papers or magazines, but will read news and stuff on the Internet.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on June 03, 2009 at 07:48 pm

Sorry I've been not responding to this thread -- I've not been online much the past few days, but this is such a great conversation, to be continued I'm sure! I've actually been thinking quite a bit about how the Broo is and isn't edited, gauged, and so forth -- more frequently than in the past I've found myself sending letters to Digi and/or Ariel about articles that I can't believe were published. This most recent one from Ms Eagle is far from the worst -- there were a few others that made me livid -- but still an example of something that confuses my idea of what purpose the Broo serves when it's functioning at its highest potential... which is....? who knows, but it brings me back to the whole "citizen journalism" thing. If we are seeking to be an alternative to mainstream media, then I don't think it's appropriate to mix the "articles" part of the site with its social networking capabilities -- I think perhaps a more functional/dynamic "newsroom" might be better for that? 

However @ craig: I am horrified that your stories aren't being published, and some of the other stuff is. We cannot be scared to publish the sort of work you're providing, while allowing for the drivel to appear simply because it is neutral and less easily offensive based on its opinions or inclusions. The piece you include here is really interesting, and I'm honestly offended FOR you. 

If you are providing facts about those who are obviously disgruntled to have these things exposed, you are demonstating the power of what citizen journalism should and can do and be -- a forum for the airing of Other stories, Other facts, and Other perspectives that get sanitized out of the corporate, controlled media that is now so dominant. I'm proud to know you inspired outrage -- it's a sign what you're doing is working.

Would you like me, Garry, or others to post stories under our names? I'd be happy to!

I was also thinking of sending out a non-official call for submissions regarding who the Broo serves, what its purpose is and can be, and et cetera: a response to "What is citizen journalism and why am I here?" who's in?

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