Rereading Like a Writer

It’s a fascinating experience and deep for an author to go back and re-read what she wrote five years ago.   I never do this. I had no choice this time.  It is required.  An assignment.


We’ve been assigned the “Project Classroom Makeover” chapter of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn.  We are reading this for a student-led open class session on student-led learning, “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education.”

This is the second student-led unit in the first graduate course offered by the Futures Initiative, the program I was recruited to design and direct at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, at least partly because of the kinds of research and institutional experiments documented in “Project Classroom Makeover.”

Mise-en-scène:the Barbie doll case with Barbie holding a Barbie doll case of Barbie holding a Barbie doll case. . .


What is an excerpt?  What is an assignment?  As a teacher, you can take the easy way out and over-assign huge, long works—lots of them—in order not to make the choice that, life being what it is, your students then make haphazardly:  what not to read, what to skim, what to fake, when there isn’t time to read too much.   “Syllabus inflation” is something we’ve already talked about in this student-led class.

As an undergraduate, I once spent an intense month-long “winter term” taking “The Russian Novel.”  I read The Brothers Karamazov in a week, a psychogenic experience without much of anything but Fyodor, Dimitri, Ivan, Alexi, and the thousands of other Russians were more real than my next door neighbors.  I also remember our prof tricking us into confessing how much we had read and being surprised, all over again, that I was the only student in the class who had actually read the book and not the Cliff Notes (the printed plot summaries that existed before the Internet made it even easier to cheat).  A different professor had done the same thing in a class where we had been assigned Moby Dick.

I have never forgot my solitary hand in the air.

Most English professors forget their classmates got by on the Cliff Notes.  The bad English professors talk about how “students don’t read anymore.”  They forget the other students in their courses who did not go on to be English professors did not read back “then,” whenever then was.   Some did.  Not many.  Not often.

We professors too often assign books to our undergraduates based on our (selective) memory of our best performance as the best student in the class most designed for future professors.

If you are a good teacher, you take the measure of your students and create a syllabus that challenges them, not one that defeats them.  Not one that teaches them the only way to succeed is by cheating.

If you are in a student-led class, you take the measure of your own life as a student and think about what is or is not realistic .

Sometimes, it means reading the excerpt.  How do you decide?  Why one chapter instead of another?  Syllabus synecdoche.


“Project Classroom Makeover” was the toughest chapter to write in Now You See It.   It is the chapter that turns the book from a rather intense analysis of the research on cognition and learning to one on the ways we need to change our institutions of formal education to take advantage of the ways we are all learning online and interactively today.   Part One proposes a new theory, drawn from many different strands of research in many scientific and social science fields, of how culture shapes the brain biology of learning from before birth (we smell and taste the world around us at about the sixth month of gestation) until death (hearing is the last sense to go).

I once wrote a blog called “Are Babies Racist?”  to discuss the infant research on how early on we learn deep cultural patterns, including who is or isn’t a “stranger,” the “other.”   In one famous experiment, it was documented that the first birth cries of German and French babies have the peculiar up or down inflection pattern of their mothers’ French or German language.

Other studies show babies turning away or crying most often when someone with a different language or body smell enters the room when they are only a few months old.   The old “yellow diaper experiment” from the 1970s, in which nurses put all the babies in the infant and premie ward into yellow diapers, instead of in ones designating male or female infants, showed adults, including nurses, peeking into the diapers to determine if they were about to pick up a boy or girl baby.

Sadly, they held the boys less often, snuggled the girl babies more.

Sadly, they talked to the female infants less often, chatted more with the male.

The difference in the physical and linguistic attention to infant gender roles happens to be more extreme in the U.S. than in any other country where the experiment has been replicated.

That’s what I mean about the cultural theory of brain biology. If you believe in the Hebbian hypothesis that we have 40% more neural pathways as infants than as adults, and that we shear neural pathways as we make our habits, then culture is the greatest habit-forming component of everyday life.  Learning is about turning the difficult and the new into that which is so habitual, automatic, and seemingly “natural” that we do not think about it anymore.   The downside is that the things that are habitual, make it impossible to see easily beyond them.  That is what focus is.

We see not the world but the part of the world relevant to our lives—and relevance is culturally, historically, and situationally determined.  That means any time we have to learn something new, we have to un-learn our old habits before we can make new ones.  It’s why a two year old has less trouble learning how to use an iPad than a forty-two year old.  Where are the dials?  That’s not a question if you’ve never had an instrument with dials.  You go right to the learning part, skipping over having to unlearn what has made all those neural pathways slick as a whistle for the last few decades.

Student-led, experience-based learning is about disrupting old patterns and assumptions in order to understand the new.  The first pattern you disrupt with student-led learning is authority.  Who has the knowledge?  Who determines what you learn?  Who says what is or is not important to learn and how?  What happens when students take responsibility for their own learning, are invested in that learning?  What institutional change is necessary to make learning a collaborative experience, not a hierarchical one, in which teachers and students are figuring it all out together?  What social change is necessary in such a world where learning is not just mastering content but learning how to learn, including in vexed and challenging and constantly-changing situations?

Our system of higher education—and K-12 as well—was quite consistently fashioned in the 19th century.  In the U.S., it was a very conscious decision to move away from the elite system of the private colleges designed to train ministers to the new, much larger system of specialization, professionalization, standardizing, and quantifying of learning that the Industrial Age demanded.

What does learning look like now, in our world, where interaction and collaboration are so much of everyday life (Facebook, anyone?) that we take it for granted.  It’s quickly become a habit—except in school.

All that is the background of “Project Classroom Makeover.”  My task in writing that chapter was to help readers whose habits of appreciation for formal education were formed in traditional formal education to see what could be gained by transforming higher education for the world we live in now.   Not because students born after 1993 have super powers, but because they aren’t looking for the dials on their iPads.

Meaning:  on April 22, 1993, the Mosaic 1.0 browser was released to the public and before the year turned to 1994, the world went from 26 (twenty-six!!) websites to over 10,000.   Internet usage increased by an estimated 250,000% in that time period.  Technology didn’t change us.  We changed our own habits of interaction and communication because an enticing new technology of interaction and communication was suddenly made easily and cheaply available.   Some adapted quickly, some fought it kicking and screaming.

And a lot of pundits wrote a lot of unsubstantiated, trite, punitive silliness based on their own prejudices and habits:  Google makes you stupid.   If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they will always be lonely.  Really?  Some brilliant people, in 2010, were writing really groundless stuff about brains and minds and learning and young people.

And some terrible corporate giants were trying to rob public education and make it private because it was “failing” and we were “failing” and the way to “save” it was to give everyone standardized tests after tests and to create charter schools that were run as businesses and on and on.

The assault on youth, the assault on education as a public good, and the really bad science were all at a fever pitch when I wrote the “Project Classroom Makeover” chapter and Now You See It.   Advocating for a new form of education (K-lifelong education) that took the interactivity of Internet participation as a starting place for learning—not as the place to run and hide from—was the literary challenge of that chapter.


I knew I had to tell not show.   So I read a lot of short stories before writing “Project Classroom Makeover.”  I read traditional, tightly-crafted stories that, in fact, interrupt themselves a lot, go in many directions at once, and then come together at the end, all the different strands forming into a coherent plot.  In that kind of fiction, the reader is making connection after connection without knowing it.  You cathect on one story and then, before you know it, you are in a different one, but your emotional baggage is still back in that last car, even as the train is moving ahead, and, even while you are moving forward, you are still thinking back to what just grabbed you.  Then, at the end, all if it settles down somehow. You’ve arrived at the emotional station, in one piece, suitcase in hand, stepping from the train to the platform.

You’ve arrived at a new place.

That was the singled hardest chapter to write in the book and the most narratively complex because I wanted the reader to like all those students learning and doing all those things.  I wanted the reader to like all this great teachers (I wish that had been my teacher, I wish my kid had that teacher . . . )   I put myself in to one segment as a vulnerable, dyslexic over-achieving learning, a failure at learning.

A strict, unbending, notably stern teacher cheated to get me through.  A lesson neither of us can ever forget.

I’m in the chapter too as a teacher—vilified on national media for my role in the infamous iPod experiment. The scariest lesson of all, for me, was that, when we exceeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, the media was silent.

Big institutional and social question we all must ask: Why is it a story when students and schools and teachers fail? Why do we want to believe Google makes us stupid and social media renders us isolated, misanthropic, desperate loners? And student-led learning is only touchy-feeling, undisciplined nonsence?

When Now You See It was reviewed in an English publication, the Apple executive who had helped to seal the deal with the iPod experiment, as part of the Apple Digital Campus project, wrote in the comments section of the review that, what Apple got from the experiment, wasn’t just a whole lot of ideas and r-and-d but a lesson in advertising.  When they saw how much heat we received for asking students to lead in technology design, use, critique, and application–the whole chorus of naysayers–and then the utter silence when we did something amazing, it taught them to never introduce an exciting new product line  as an innovation in learning or education.  That might come later, but you couldn’t lead with this.  Education, he implied, is inherently conservative.  Pretty sad.

They said we would learn nothing.  We learned an enormous amount.  That wasn’t a “story.” They said nothing.  Every present and future teacher needs to understand that.  Why so much silence when the bold and empowering educational experiment succeeds?

It’s hard to remember that the world was like in 2003 when we did the iPod experiment,  when iPod’s were one-way music listening devices. Period. No known educational use.  No interactivity.  Broadcast only.  No video.

Our students invented what no one knew there was to invent.  They imagined uses no one dreamed of–rural nurses able to listen to the national catalog of heart defects; being able to “play” with quartert from the Philadelphia symphony; listening to every stage version of Hamlet on the bus to and from East and West campus; being able to record lectures, upload them, and anyone around the world could then listen to them too.  For free.  None of this existed before.  It required as much art and imagination as it did science and technology.

It required imagining futures.

History lesson:  the first iPhone wasn’t released for four more years, until 2007.   The first iPad was 2010.   My students held the world’s first ever academic “podcasting” conference based on two-way transmission systems they helped to devise for this one-way music-listening device.

I still have the poster.  “Podcasting” is in quotation marks because they went through a dozen different other possible names for this thing that didn’t exist before this student-led experiment in learning.

It was fun writing about Mrs. Davidson, teaching in a four-room school in remote rural Alberta in the 1950s, in a chapter on the boldest imaginable experiment in learning for a digital age.  She was an inspiration too.


To write the chapter “Project Classroom Makeover,”  I read Chekov and Alice Munro and Junot Diaz, brilliant crafters of the art of the interrupted, conventional, humane, empathic short story.

They write stories that make it seem entirely plausible that you could travel in a few hours from there to here.   X marks the spot. Despite all the meanderings, maybe because of them, the journey you took seems inevitable when you get to the end.  It seems natural.  Like a habit.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309