Disciplinary Expertise?

According to Harold Gardner in The Disciplined Mind, written in 1999:

In contrast to the naive student or the information-crammed but still ignorant adult, an expert is a person who really does think differently about his or her speciality. The expert has successfully achieved the desire set of engravings. Expertise generally arises as a result of several years of sustained work within a domain, discipline or craft, often courtesy of a traditional apprenticeship. Part of that training involves the elimination of habits and concepts that, however attractive to the native person, are actually inimical to the skilled practice of a discipline or craft. And the remaining part of that training involves the construction of habits and concepts that reflect the best contemporary thinking and practices of the domain (123).

In an updated version of his theories on discipline, truth, beauty and goodness, Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed, published in 2012, he writes:

In the search for truth, our greatest allies are the scholarly disciplines and the professional crafts—in short, areas of expertise that have developed and deepened over the centuries. Each discipline each craft explores a different sphere of reality and each attempts to establish truths—the truths of knowledge, the truths of practice (23).

I haven’t been able to read through Gardner’s work that carefully yet, but in starting to ponder the value of disciplines and being disciplined, I’m troubled. While I appreciate the need for sustained attention to a topic and for cultivating a certain set of skills, I’m less convinced that this sort of education is best achieved by mastering an academic discipline or by working solely within academic disciplinary frameworks. Additionally, I’m skeptical of the appeal to a set of “experts” as the masters of a particular set of truths, especially when who can claim or be counted as an expert is so limited (and is so frequently biased against certain forms of knowledge).


Aaron Swartz
As I reflect on these ideas about disciplines and being disciplined today, on January 13, 2013, Gardner’s books aren’t the only things I’m thinking about. This morning, I also read Aaron Swartz’s speech, How to Get a Job Like Mine. Tweets about his tragic suicide on Friday have taken over my twitter feed. In the midst of tweets honoring his contributions and tweets raging against what (and who) caused his death, I found a link to a 2007 talk that he gave at a computer conference. I want to put this talk and his advice, as a mentor, but not an expert, on how to have a energizing, yet stressful job like his, beside Gardner’s theories. Here’s his pithy advice:

  1. Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.
  2. Say yes to everything. I have a lot of trouble saying no, to an pathological degree — whether to projects or to interviews or to friends. As a result, I attempt a lot and even if most of it fails, I’ve still done something.
  3. Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing either. A lot of people refuse to try something because they feel they don’t know enough about it or they assume other people must have already tried everything they could have thought of. Well, few people really have any idea how to do things right and even fewer are to try new things, so usually if you give your best shot at something you’ll do pretty well.

I want to think some more about Swartz’s advice, and his activist efforts to challenge JSTOR so as to ensure that more people had access to information and ideas produced within the academy. When Gardner argues for the need to master a discipline and learn from experts, who has access to that knowledge (and who doesn’t)?

Digital Media Learning: Everyone
Also today, I watched a Digital Media Learning Connected Learning Video:

opening / ‘the march of the formal educational curriculum is at a very different pace from how kids interests develop.’
closing / ‘a sense of fulfillment, belonging and purpose are possibly more important than the knowledge being cultivated.‘

Chrome: Expanding Access and Who Counts as an Expert
And, while I was watching the very exciting Atlanta Falcons vs. Seattle Seahawks football game, I saw this commercial for Chrome:

Where do experts come from?
What sort of knowledge do they offer?
How does the internet complicate how and where we learn and/or gain expertise?

As I work through my own troubled reactions to the need for discipline (which include my questioning of my continued embracing of being undisciplined and whether or not you need to first be disciplined in order to be undisciplined), I want to put all of these ideas beside each other.

Kindergarten Progress Report

While cleaning up a closet, I unearthed my report card (or, Progress Report, as they called it in North Carolina in 1979) from kindergarten. I was pretty excited; I thought the only report card that I still had was my one from first grade.

Love it! My favorite line has to be in the teacher comments for the first quarter: “Sara is a sweet child but needs to work on self-control.” Ha! That sounds very similar to my first grade progress report. It’s interesting to read through Mrs. Van Dohlen’s comments; they’re surprisingly nice (kind? civil?). According to my mom, Mrs. Van Dohlen, on at least one occasion, put me in a box for bad behavior. What was my “bad behavior”? I vaguely recall responding to some other kid’s question with, “none of your beeswax!” Another thing to note about this report card are my very low marks for “practices self discipline.” I started with L (low), the lowest grade possible, and only improved one level to S (satisfactory). I’ve written about my early lack of self-discipline and devoted a digital video to it too

Here’s the inside of my progress report:

It might be hard to read in the scan, but in the language and spelling sections, Mrs. Van Dohlen has written: “Needs to continue to work on holding pencil correctly.” That might be one of my most vivid memories from kindgergarten. One of my older sisters, AMP, had taught me to read and write when I was 4 and I liked how I learned to hold my pencil. Throughout that kindergarten year, I adamantly refused to hold it the “correct way.” What did it matter, I always thought (but probably didn’t actually say to my teacher). This small act of resistance was one of my first memories of troubling my education. To this day, I still don’t hold my pencil correctly and I still think that regulating students in this way is bullshit.

An Undisciplined Account: the context

In my last post, I discussed my undisciplined experiment with digital storytelling. In my digital video, I reflected on my first-grade report card and was curious about why my “lack of self-disciple” was featured so prominently on it. Even as I was finishing up that video, I was troubled/unsettled/curious about my lack of context. While I briefly mentioned that I went to school in Hickory, North Carolina, I didn’t provide any details about the town or the state. Since I’m interested in the ways that calls for self-discipline have disturbing implications for folks who don’t fit the mythical (White) norm, it seems important to mention that 1980s North Carolina, particularly in the part of the state that I lived, near the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, was a racially charged and poverty stricken area (at least, right outside of the city of Hickory). It was also in a school district where corporeal punishment, in the form of paddling, was mandatory (I need to do some more research on that, but I’m pretty sure that I remember my mom, a junior high learning disabilities teacher, struggling with how to resist/reject this regulation).

One more note: less than one year before I was in first grade in Hickory, a violent massacre of anti-racist activists occurred less than 2 hours away, in Greesburo, South Carolina:

Just shortly before starting this post, I wrote a comment about the need to contextualize my self-discipline narrative. Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my whiteness and its impact on how my lack of self-discipline was handled by my teacher. As much as I can recall, I didn’t really get in that much “trouble” in that first grade class. Even though paddling was encouraged, I was never paddled. (It might have even been mandatory for teachers; I went to elementary school in the 1980s in North Carolina, at least partly known for its poverty, racism and corporeal punishment. I think I recall my mom, who taught in a different school, saying that she was told that she had to paddle misbehaving students).

I wish I could remember more of my mom’s stories about her teaching experiences in North Carolina. I think she would have a lot to say about how non-white/poor white students were punished as troublemakers with corporeal punishment and by being placed in learning disabilities classrooms like hers.

After posting this comment, I decided to quickly look through one of my mom’s notebooks (the same notebook where I found her reflections on throwing darts at the Censor and her poem about the dragonfly). In it, I found some of her research notes for a presentation on Creativity and Weaving: “My Experiences in Taylorsville, North Carolina–the 80’s.” Jackpot! Well, not quite, but it’s a start. In these brief notes, my mom provides some context on 1980s North Carolina and a little bit of information about her experiences as a teacher during that time. She was a special education teacher (I remember that she called herself an LD–learning disabilities–teacher) at West Jr. High School “in the middle of the country in Alexander County, then the 2nd poorest county in the state.” She notes that the KKK was a big presence (with at least one teacher claiming membership) and that there was a sharp contrast in wealth between “the richer city of Hickory” (where I attended school) and her extremely poor students in rural Alexander County.

She also briefly describes “discipline in the schools” as: “paddle–woodburned names, classroom chart with 3 demerits than a paddle.” I remember that from my first-grade class! Only once was I almost paddled. I had made it through the entire day without a single demerit. Then, in the last few minutes of school, I managed to earn three! For some reason, Mrs. Miller didn’t paddle me. Did I ever see her paddle any other students? I’m not sure. How did my mom handle the paddle rule in her classroom? Did she ever paddle her students? Did she refuse? If so, what were the consequences of that refusal? How did she manage her role as a teacher who was supposed to discipline students (and who was frequently given students who didn’t really have learning disabilities, but were just deemed “disciplinary problems”) with her role as a mother of someone who lacks (self) discipline? Did she witness any differences between how discipline functioned in “rich Hickory” and “poor Alexander county”? What did she think about these differences? Did they shape how she handled my disciplinary problems?

Yes! I must continue to explore and trouble my undisciplined account.

An undisciplined experiment with digital storytelling

Almost 10 years ago, STA and I did two digital videos about the Puotinen family farm. While the films that we made in 2002/2003 weren’t technically sophisticated (we used iMovie, a built-in microphone and some low quality/old photos), I am very proud of them. Through these films, I was able to document two extremely important parts of me (both of which are now gone): our family farm, sold in 2004, and my mom, who died in 2009.

Since the time of making those films, the technology has improved a lot and it’s even easier to create your own digital stories, using photos, voice-over, and video. iMovie is easy to use and there are lots of different apps for creating stories on your smarthphone or iPad. Additionally, communities of scholars, artists, activists and educators have cultivated and are promoting the value of creating and sharing stories digitally. There are classes on digital storytelling (like the awesome class at the University of Minnesota, taught by Rachel Raimist and Walt Jacobs) and a Center for Digital Storytelling (started in the mid-1900s).

While I’ve been aware of digital storytelling for several years now, I haven’t read that much about it or tried it out myself. Until now.

A few weeks ago, I started writing and thinking a lot about discipline and my own lack of it. The general topic of discipline and being a disciplinary problem aren’t really new for me; they are a focus of this blog. But, something about my current in-between state (in-between teaching gigs, in-between academic and non-academic spaces, in-between a love of learning and being burned out from the academy and formal education), has made the topic of my own un/discipline particularly personal and compelling. After writing a few blog posts about it, I remembered the one and only report card that I still have from my elementary school years: my first grade report card. Since this report card has a lot to stay about my lack of self-discipline, it seemed a perfect object/subject for an undisciplined experiment with digital storytelling.

I loved experimenting with images of the report card, old photos, and voice-over in order to be curious about and reflect on who I was in first grade and why I struggled so much with self-discipline (whatever that means). I also liked trying out iMovie (I chose it over final cut pro), pixelmator (instead of photoshop) and a Yeti microphone. Pretty cool. I’m looking forward to experimenting even more with it in future projects; I’m already hoping to do a different version about my report card in which I put my struggle with self-discipline in the larger context of race, class and gender in 1980s North Carolina. For now, here’s my first experiment: School Progress Report: An Undisciplined Account

Student Progress Report: An Undisciplined Account from Undisciplined on Vimeo.

on self-control and the trouble with discipline, pt 2: troubling images

Yesterday, I listed off 4 reasons (among many others) for why I refuse/reject/resist using or claiming the terms, “self-control” or “discipline”:

one: They conjure up damaging images and reinforce problematic understandings of who is/isn’t able to have control and be disciplined.
two: They are frequently linked to a particular set of conservative values (a la Bill Bennett).
three: They are shaped by a very narrow vision of success/happiness that is unwanted and/or unachievable by many.
four: They are privileged at the expense of a number of other, equally (or more) important values, like respect, responsibility, attentiveness, vulnerability.

In part 2 of this series, I want to focus on reason #1: Troubling images and understandings. Much of how we understand “self-control” and “discipline” is constructed through the repeated citing of its failures, represented by various non-normative bodies in a variety of oppressive images which, when repeated enough, become ingrained understandings (stereotypes) of entire groups. These images of failure function as threatening reminders of what we will become if we don’t act properly and with self-control and discipline; they haunt our actions and keep us in line. They also reduce the people who are recognized as failing to oppressive stereotypes. I come to the idea of the haunting/threatening image through J Butler and her understandings of the abject in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter. For more on understanding of abject, see this class summary). 

Here are (just a few) examples of these images:

There are many problems with reinforcing these images. For example, if failure’s image of a lack of willpower is “the Fat Slob,” fat becomes equated with failure and the inability to have control. This leads to understandings of all fat people as lacking willpower and being weak slobs, which leads to the stigmatization of people who fall outside of our accepted weight ideals (either determined by pounds and the medical profession’s ever-changing obesity charts or by appearance and pop culture’s regulations of who/what is beautiful), which leads to the dehumanizing of those non-normative bodies. Here’s just one example of the reinforcing of fat = lack of willpower = stupid slob (so disturbing). And here’s a list of blogs by fat studies scholars/activists/bloggers that challenge this dehumanizing equation of fat = failure.

In another example, if failure’s image of the lazy (non) worker is the Welfare Queen, most frequently represented by the single Black mother, receiving Welfare becomes equated with failure and a refusal to be disciplined and work hard. This leads to understandings of all welfare recipients as lazy and undeserving of a “free” handout from others who actually are disciplined and work hard, which leads to the stigmatization of Welfare, and particularly those who are assumed to receive it the most, Black single mothers. This in turn leads to the dehumanizing of those who are unable to get jobs or who must, for a variety of reasons, many of which are out of their control, depend on Welfare. Here’s one critical tracing of the welfare queen stereotype. You should also check out Patricia Hill Collins’ classic Black Feminist Thought, particularly her chapter: Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images. 

I could go on and on about how these threatening images of failure are damaging to all sorts of folks who fall outside of the mythical norm, like how young black men are frequently read as disciplinary problems and written off as future criminals or how any expression of emotion by women of color, in particular, black women, is understood to signal a failure to control one’s anger and show restraint, or how HIlary Clinton was dismissed as a viable presidential candidate because her PMS would cause her to be too emotional and unstable at certain times of the month. But in the interest of making this post less than 1000 words, I’ll stop…for now.

My point in briefly discussing these damaging images of self-control’s failure is not that every time someone uses the terms “self-control” or “discipline” they are deliberately trying to dehumanize fat people as weak slobs or stigmatize welfare recipients as “Welfare queens.” Instead, the point is that these terms are inextricably tied, in the public imagination, to threatening images of what happens when you fail to have control or be disciplined. When these words are used, they invoke a whole history of meanings that, in my undisciplined opinion, are too invested in regulating and reproducing the mythical norm.

We need new terms and understandings for the values that “self-control” and “discipline” claim to represent. Maybe we also need some new values that contribute to our surviving and thriving that don’t emphasize staying in line and unquestioningly follow orders? More on those thoughts in a future post…

As a final thought: I struggled in writing this post. Having spent so much time over the past decade thinking about the problems with controlling people’s “excessive” behavior through threats and calls for “self-control” and “discipline,” I wonder if I was able to effectively introduce this critique to a reader who is not familiar with it. Any feedback is greatly appreciated.