Saturday, April 16, 2016

Crossing and Meeting at Musical Boundaries: Reflection #5 on Perspective-Taking

So already, on a recent wintry April Sunday afternoon, I attended a concert at Wellesley College in which the Shanghai Quartet joined forces with Wu Man, a world-renowned player of the traditional Chinese lute-like instrument known as the pipa, to perform a classical program featuring music eastern, western, and eastern-western; music traditional, innovative, and traditional-innovative. Their performance of Tan Dun's "Concerto for String Quartet and Pipa" so thrilled me that I listened to it many times on YouTube on the days following and finally decided to write a poem about it.  Here's that poem. I think a lot now about spring peepers and spring pipas!

On Hearing Tan Dun’s “Concerto for String Quartet and Pipa” in Spring

“At the . . . Conservatory . . . , Wu Man met two of the current members of the Shanghai Quartet, but didn’t make music with them: “’We belonged to different departments. They played Western instruments, and I played a Chinese instrument.”

“The year 1992 marked the first time in history for musical dialogue between a string quartet and a pipa, . . . .”

“’I feel pipa is my voice.’”—Wu Man

Part I

Late Sunday,
early spring.
Snow bright,
late and low.
Sun, clouds,
then sun again,
moving west,
beyond the window’s
black scrim.


Five right feet
stamp unison--
breach silence,
crush notions
of first notes
bowed or plucked.

Pipa, pear-shaped,
vertical, still--
then, suddenly,
strummed and struck,
strings snatched, released
as bows chart arcs,
map sound
between note and note,
rise and fall,

then stillness
too brittle to hold.

the five musicians shout.

The briefest pause.

Then, above the quartet’s
shimmering hum,
pipa notes
drop one-by-one
into a moonlit pool.

Part II

Continuities, moods, and changes
as pipa and strings negotiate,
swoop and volley.

Sometimes they play tag,
take turns at chase and flee.
Sometimes they trade stories,
render journeys and home.
like experienced dancers
newly partnered,
they join full to
leap boundaries for horizons.
Slapping sound boxes like drums,
sliding seasoned bows and hands
with breathless speed and force
the length of well-known strings,
they gallop bold and free
to a new music
that remembers still.

Look only to nature
to see how our tendency
to sort and parse
inclines us to love best or only
what submits
to the order we’ve imposed--
and therefore limits loving.

Daffodils bowed low by April snow,
fluted yellow fans inverted
at the ends of green stems
arching sunward slowly
above the muddy zigzag
of melting snow
and brown earth:
new beauty
for winterspring.

* Quotations from the program entitled “The Wellesley College Concert Series Presents Wu Man and The Shanghai String Quartet: Music from Ancient and New China.

** Pipa Photo:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Stalking Mysteries, Not Secrets: Reflection #4 on Perspective-Taking

So already, I've just read the introduction* to Ethan Zuckerman's Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn't, and How to Rewire It, and I'm already hooked on the book. Zuckerman's comments about the importance of looking for mysteries are what hooked me. Not secrets. Not problems. Mysteries.

After affirming that technology has played a role in the last few decades in major shifts in political power in such places as Iran, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Zuckerman identifies what he sees as the problem with the "conversation about the role of technology in enabling social change": participants in it assume that understanding the phenomenon of technology-supported change requires a successful search for still-concealed secrets. He disagrees: "Looking for secrets--the missing information in systems we understand--we can easily glide past mysteries, events that make sense only when we understand how systems have changed."

Wow! When was the last time I had seen the word "mystery" in a book that was about to offer an analysis of something not adequately understood and then make recommendations on the basis of that analysis? The word is more apt to be used in connection to detective work--the main characters in public television's Masterpiece Mysteries series plumb the circumstances surrounding crimes in order to identify and arrest the crimes' perpetrators--or in conjunction with religion and art--“Behold, I tell you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” sings the bass late in Handel's musical rendering of text from I Corinthians in The Messiah. 

Like Handel's bass, Zuckerman communicates about change so fundamental, pervasive, and powerful that it transforms the world and, by extension, the lives of most if not all of the people in it. Granted, he is not talking about cosmic change or mystery as relates to divine spirit, but he is talking about global change that has already begun and that will continue to generate phenomena and effects that he contends the most exhaustive, imaginative searches for secrets won't fully illuminate. As conscientiously as those dedicated secret-hunters might "think outside of the box," chances are great that their very dedication to pursuing secrets will blind them to the fact that the box they're thinking outside of exists inside another box--the changing systems box. Which means they will still be thinking inside the box. And who knows what other boxes may be out there? Welcome outer boxes, welcome mysteries!

Zuckerman quotes computer security expert Susan Landau to emphasize the importance of thinking in imaginative, heretofore unsanctioned ways: "'solving mysteries requires deep, often unconventional thinking, and a full picture of the world around the mystery'" (4). That full picture is definitely an outer box that we may not be used to paying attention to, let alone exploring. Zuckerman responsibly provides us with some outer-box clues, given that his definition of mysteries makes a consideration of systems important and raises the question of what systems he's talking about:
"As we enter an age of ever-increasing global connection, we are experiencing vast but subtle shifts in how people communicate, organize themselves, and make decisions. We have new opportunities to participate in conversations that are local and global, to argue with, persuade, and be persuaded by people far from our borders. And we have much to argue about, as our economies are increasingly intertwined, and our actions as individuals and nations affect one another's climate, health, and wealth. And as these connections increase, it should be surprise that we will also experience a concomitant rise in mystery" (5).
Our increased technological capacity to connect and the proliferation of interpersonal connections that result from it have created changes in not only whom we relate to and work with, but how we relate to and work with them. At some point, "subtle" shifts on a "vast" scale don't merely change the systems we rely on to communicate, organize, and arrive at decisions, but make us experience them as unfamiliar, alien, and disorienting. It's not just the "what" that we're experiencing that unsettles us; it's also the "how" and the "with whom" that's hardly business as usual.

Expect more mystery, Zuckerman warns as he points to the multiplying connections, conversatons, and issues and reminds us that there's no going back. But his warning is more calm prediction than dire threat: "Not all mysteries are tragedies (5)," he asserts, which causes me to break out in an audible "Phew" and then "Hallelujah!" Mysteries aren't to be automatically categorized as problems. They might just be gateways to the wonderful. Elusive perhaps, even annoyingly so. Challenging, yes. But potentially opportunities rather than problems.

I make no bones about it. For a long time, I've had a gripe with educational frameworks that make identifying problems and solving problems so central to the endeavor of education that any form of not knowing, of not understanding, is categorized as a problem to be solved, the more quickly the better. This is not to say that there aren't high-quality problem-centered, process-centered approaches and curricula that center on problems identified by and meaningful to students. It is to say, however, that in school settings that don't trust students to care and don't support students in developing their capacities to guide their own learning, not knowing and not understanding are frequently pathologized, even though so much of being human is about coming upon things we don't know and understand, have never encountered before, still don't understand, are curious about, are intrigued by, think we might want to learn more about or learn how to do.

A Wallace Stevens Blackbird **
Many teachers are required to write grim learning goals for their students that tell them what they will--what they better-- "know and be able to do" by the end of the class period or the week of class periods. Fighting against this disrespect for authentically not knowing, fighting for my students' rights to understand and not just know, for their right to understand partially, to understand over time, to understand over the course of a lifetime, I've often posed the following questions for my classes to consider over the course of poetry units: "How can I make sense or meaning of a poem that initially makes very little sense to me?" and  "Can I love a poem that I don't fully understand?"

When educational frameworks and missions make identifying problems and then solving them the chief reason for developing students' critical and creative thinking abilities, every learning opportunity becomes a problem. In classrooms and schools driven predominantly by problem-solving, students are apt to conceive of literary text as a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to make meaning, a chance to see the world differently or feel connected to others who've experienced similar feelings or had similar thoughts, or a chance to experience the beautiful or sublime. When problem-solving is the driving purpose, questions are often ranked and critiqued in terms of their capacity to articulate a problem that's present or stimulate inquiry or action related to that problem; the information they provide about students' interests,  sensitivities, prior knowledge, and ways of learning may be explored and valued little or not at all. The message to students all too often is "All the world's a problem, and all the men and women merely problem-solvers." The subtext of that message is "Your skills and future economic and educational 'success' are the only thing that matters to this school; we're not concerned with who you are today and who you might want to become in the future."

"Drain" by Scott Ketcham***
Certainly the world has lots of problems that need solving; certainly, young people being educated today will need to  develop either solutions to those problems of their abilities to manage those problems so the consequences of them are minimized for all. But a strange painting is not a problem, and neither is a vernal pool, be it silent or alive with the mating calls of spring peepers. The fact that both a work of art and phenomenon in nature clamor to be understood does not make them problems. Our initial reaction may be to marvel at them and delight in the mysteries they present to us.

Of course, to encounter a phenomenon as new, global, and world-shaping as technology-supported political change presents a mystery of a different type and magnitude than a vernal pool, poem, or painting--suggesting that we all need to think outside the box when it comes to our personal conceptions of mystery. When phenonema are global, mystery cannot be divorced from social interactions, cross-cultural encounters, and economic and political situations--realities which may or may not provide important contexts for understanding a poem, a painting, and a vernal pool. Complexities layer atop other complexities in Zuckerman's example of a global phenomenon that has both fostered and been fostered by systemic change.

But Zuckerman is optimistic about our capacities to pursue mysteries rather than secrets, to "rewire" ourselves through the development of new tools, and the skills and dispositions to use them with an openness to unanticipated breakthroughs:
     "We can build new tools that help us understand whose voices we're hearing and whom we are ignoring. We can make it easier to understand conversations in other language, and to collaborate with people in other nations. We can take steps toward engineering serendipity, collecting insights that are unexpected and helpful. With a fraction of the brainpower that's gone into building the Internet as we know it, we can build a network that helps us discover, understand, and embrace the wider world" (7).
Though I am mystified by what "engineering serendipity" would entail, I love the idea of it, want to believe it's possible, and look forward to reading more about how this might be done. As far as "collecting insights that are unexpected and helpful," I both appreciate the value of this, have some skills for doing so that I learned through my participation in the Project Zero**** Making Learning Visible Project, and understand the possible hindrances to it: successfully harvesting such insights requires not merely sensitivity to insight, but an openness to and the legitimization of all human beings who offer them. Without a doubt, there's work to be done in all of our institutions if all the voices that can offer enlightening insights and perspectives are to be authentically considered. Zuckerman believes we're capable of doing this needed work, and so do I, but it's very hard work.

Current Projects at Project Zero
There's an educational development that's also contributing to my optimism, something that Zuckerman doesn't talk about in his book because he's not speaking to an educator audience per se. It's the work that progressive educators and researchers at such places such as Project Zero are doing to help students understand and experience systems not just as functioning realities in the present, but as designable realities for the future. Not all phenomena are problems, but some phenomena are systems. If the mysteries we need to watch for, listen for, and experience abide within changed or changing systems, it's critical that we develop our capacities to recognize systems and to look at, think about, and wonder at them in ways that reflect the characteristics that distinguish them from other phenomena.

We've always known that it's important to see the forest for the trees, but it's become even more important than we thought, given not only the malleability and power of systems, but the rapid rate of at which they change in our current world. Zuckerman believes that if we want a better collective future, we need to become adept not just at seeing forests, but at looking at and into them. He's confident that with the right tools and mindsets, we can move beyond acknowledging and analyzing forests to detecting and exploring those moments when and those places where they elude our usual ways of understanding them. If we are energized by these mysteries and delve into them as puzzling, promising opportunities, Zuckerman contends, we will be able to "build . . . [that] network that helps us discover, understand, and embrace the wider world." Time for me to read on and find out more about how, so I can help that positive change along.

* [Introduction: Secrets and Mysteries]. (2013). In E. Zuckerman (Author), Digital cosmopolitans: Why we think the internet connects us, why it doesn't, and how to rewire it. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.  
** Screen Shot of Dan Kitwood/Getty Images photo included in Tang, K. (Ed.). (2013, July 23). 13 Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird Wallace Stevens’ classic poem as a list. SORRY. BuzzFeed. Retrieved April 11, 2016, from 
*** Other works by Scott Ketcham can be found at
**** Project Zero is a research center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that focuses on questions of teaching and learning. Their web site is at