Classifying the Unclassifiable

My first impression of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was that of encountering a new kind of philosophy. The brisk breezes, natural images, interpersonal evaluations, and autobiographical approach of Robert Pirsig’s creation seemed fresh and new; I suppose it has remained so as I have read further. However, its beauty has already been marred for me. What, you might ask, could I find so distasteful that it could change my perspective on the entire piece of writing? It is the introduction of a pervasive and foundational dichotomy. Pirsig writes, “What you’ve got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don’t match and they don’t fit and they don’t really have much of anything to do with one another” (61). He even goes so far as to claim that “there is no point at which these visions of reality are unified” (Pirsig 75). I can never help but feel what can only be described as a deeply ingrained and pervasive distaste for such sweeping and generalizing categorizations. I just can’t stomach them. They limit what should not be limited and categorize what cannot be categorized.

It seems, however, that I can never escape the categorizations that permeate our culture. People seem to satisfy their human need to classify by grouping nearly everything they can. If you are in a STEM field, you inhabit a reality that cannot be reached by artists. The Democratic Party and Republican Party can almost never agree on anything. Followers of Catholicism and Islam fight often because their foundational beliefs cannot be reconciled. These common and heartbreaking refrains are everywhere, and they often seem to be true. Why? I believe we are raised in an environment where people join factions like they are gangs. We learn that we should join certain groups and be loyal to them. We perpetuate the continued existence of polarizing grouping by our very willingness to identify ourselves through classifications.

In spite of these groupings, however, endless complexities do exist. Human beings are not automatons, and they are not programmed to adhere to societal rules without deviation. Luckily, collaboration amongst seemingly opposed groups is not dead. Pirsig’s notion of an unbridgeable gap between science and art has proven to be inaccurate; a little research quickly reveals that scientists and artists do work together. This is possible because they are not locked in different forms of reality and can be analytical artists or intuitive scientists. When I write, I do not just type whatever words happen to emerge from the murky innards of mind. I evaluate the words I use and ask myself why I am using them; I often change my mind and make alterations to my choices of structure and words. Then, I go back and make additions or eliminate unnecessary or ungainly contributions. I think most decent writers are as analytical as they are intuitive.

Some influential professionals have recognized that dichotomies and classifications like those put forth by Pirsig are potentially damaging, and they have spoken out for change. They argue that we can produce greater results by acknowledging what intuition and analysis can glean from each other and striving to consciously utilize the connection. Check out the inspiring video below to hear a more beautiful rendering of this sentiment.

 

Classification makes it easier for speakers to utter sweeping generalizations, but I think a great deal of inspiring complexity and important distinctions are lost at the same time. Although it seems impossible in modern society, I still cherish the hope that there will come a day when nearly everyone understands that labels do not and have never been adequate to serve as representations of all that humans are and can be. Classifications would probably still be used, but their meanings would at least be considered limited instead of definitive. Until then, I will just keep refuting sweeping generalizations like those offered to us by Pirsig while trying not to put too much faith in them myself.

Education and Experience

I think that I have made it clear through my previous post and comments in class that I am highly skeptical of many of the teaching ideas of the Third Way as they are represented in Uptaught. I remain skeptical that strategies which entail a departure from the teaching of more formal forms of English or the attribution of letter grades are in the best interests of students as they leave school and begin a career. Nevertheless, one of Ken Macrorie’s strategies which emerges during the second half Uptaught does hold special significance for me; I feel that the integration of experience into college curriculums is a necessary and vital part of education. Students all live in and experience the world around them, and I think writing majors in particular benefit greatly from attempts to allow them to connect their compositions to their experiences.

I have long believed that one of the most demeaning and potentially damaging comments that many people tend to make is that students do not live in the “real world.” This “real world” fallacy is so common that a great number of representations have appeared in popular culture to help express it. The concept of some kind of emergence into a world that is more legitimate because those allowed inside it are older and not students is absurd. First, it erroneously suggests that students are not dealing with many of the same problem that full-time employees are facing. Second, it suggests that there is one true world that only real adults (i.e. just about everyone but students and people who live with their moms’ basements) can inhabit. The result is an illogical and demeaning polarization constructed between students and the rest of society. However, Macrorie argues that students do live in a real world and have real experiences. He writes, “The university need not devise ways of engaging students in the problems of this world. They live in it” (101). Since we actually do live in and experience the real world, I think we need to write like it. For me, writing that is alive is writing that has a reason to exist beyond fulfilling the requirements on a syllabus. It is writing that says something about the world and has a purpose within it.

Macrorie gives his readers a few valuable recommendations about how students can connect their writing to the world around them; the essential ingredients are focus, discipline, and planning combined with a freedom which allows each student to find what matters for him or her and incorporate it into a composition (179). I think problems naturally emerge when professors try to tell their students what should matter instead of allowing them to find what matters to them. Who among us wants to write about a subject that seems uninteresting using a textbook format that leaves no margin for creation or experimentation? Luckily, I feel that many members of Montana State’s English faculty have already realized that good writing comes from students who are allowed to integrate their worldly interests into their creations. The freedom for each writer to pursue what matters to him or her is, I think, the most essential element of the Third Way of teaching so ardently admired by Macrorie.

Universities also have the potential to encourage students to expand upon their previous experiences through coursework that requires primary research and internships that incorporate the interests of students. Macrorie describes such experiences as journeys (170). If good writing comes from experience, a journey of experience would almost certainly be a boon for writers who hope to make new connections and broaden the scope of their writing. I think this is probably one of the reasons why internships are mandatory for writing majors at Montana State.

I am not suggesting that experience programs always come without a price for students, nor do I maintain that such programs are always fun. Going alone to a place you have never been before to beg for an interview from someone you have never met so that you have background information for a journalism course paper that only twenty people will read is about as fun as wisdom teeth removal. The rather significant downside of internships is that many student interns are unpaid, which means that some students who can hardly afford to buy groceries and have significant debt from loans often do the same work as paid employees without financial compensation. These indignities, however, may not be too great of a price to pay to add to the treasure trove of experience that so often characterizes the way a person writes. My writing and thinking expand as my experiences do. It is a form of learning that will not and cannot end.

The Promises and Perils of Macrorie’s Third Way

Ken Macrorie’s Uptaught informs readers that education in the United States has been broken for a long time. Most teachers, suggests Macrorie, have either stifled their students or provided them with so much freedom that near anarchy ensues (27). The whole of Uptaught so far has been peppered with examples and anecdotes suggesting that a Third Way exists. This method presumably allows students to “operate with freedom and discipline” (27). In some ways, I feel that Macrorie has established a new and effective method of teaching. Some of his points, however, seem extreme and potentially destructive for students.

I have personally been exposed to many of the hardships that Macrorie describes and know few students who have not been exposed similarly. I have been taught by many professors who seemed convinced that the ultimate knowledge was theirs and that the thoughts of students, including those backed by evidence, were inferior or unsound. Some classes have entailed little discussion or student involvement in anything but tests and homework assignments. I used to love reading, but now I almost always view it as another task to be done. It is difficult to enjoy a novel when you have to journal every chapter or stop every few paragraphs to take notes for a paper. Sometimes, I feel as imprisoned by my education as the student pictured above.

I think the greatest strength of the Third Way is its potential to make students feel as though they are valuable members of a class. Free writes like those assigned by Macrorie seem like an invaluable way to stimulate student interest (21). Unsurprisingly, it seems that compositions comes alive when students can write about something that is emotionally alive in them. I am a strong advocate of constructive group writing reviews as well and have often found them very effective. Throughout Uptaught, I feel that Macrorie has advocated for writing in a way that is similar to how many linguists advocate for descriptivism. He wants writing that is effective and does not necessarily conform to the limitations imposed by Standard English. I think such freedom has the potential to teach students to write in a way that is powerful instead of a way that satisfies academic expectations while imposing strict limitations on intellectual productivity.

While I applaud some of Macrorie’s notions, I have a great deal of trouble understanding some of his methods. In some ways, I feel as though the examples he gives of his teaching actually depart from the principles he describes while explaining the Third Way. The writing samples provided in Uptaught are entertaining and sometimes even emotionally moving, but do the students seem “encouraged to learn the way of experts” ( Macrorie 27)? Unfortunately, I do not feel that much of the writing displayed would be highly esteemed anywhere but in communities focused on creative writing.

In my experience in places of employment, supervisors want you to produce compositions that display mastery of Standard English (which at times seems very similar to Macrorie’s hated Engfish). For example, my experience suggests that a standard operating procedure document containing as many sentence fragments and other grammatical issues as many of the writing samples in Uptaught would never be circulated. Macrorie writes that he allows students to make errors like all humans are likely to do (74). However, is this more lenient approach the most conducive to the production of professional documents on which a writer’s job may eventually depend? The pass-fail grading system described by Macrorie also sounds excellent to me as a student (94). However, will graduate schools and corporations really take an applicant seriously if his or her transcript in peppered with notations indicating a pass grade instead of letter grades? How could one responsibly calculate GPA totals comparable to those produced by other departments or institutions? Do grades really indicate very little about a student, or are they reflections of work ethic and an ability to understand instructions? These are just a few of the questions that I believe arise in respect to the Third Way advocated so staunchly by Macrorie.

 

Network Gaming: The Potential and Problems

The video game industry is intricate, large, and diverse. As a previous member of the gaming community, I have witnessed firsthand the following that video games can build amongst interested members of the population. Commercial social entertainment networks like Xbox Live, which has reported a worldwide group of members numbering over 48 million, have clearly begun to assert an enticing pull for many. These growing communities provide immense networking possibilities. Anil Dash speaks highly of networks that grow fast, do not exclude those who are late to join, and allow people from different areas and who possess different talents to exchange and amplify ideas. Chris Anderson argues in “How Web Video Powers Global Innovation” that the formation of diverse crowds that can see what each other are doing and possess desire leads to accelerated innovation. With its capacity for both collaborative multiplayer gaming and internet access to amenities like Skype, Xbox Live is one of the many forums that allow for the developments discussed by Dash and Anderson to form.

The online gaming experience alone has become a complex social system. It is still possible to purchase games that allow their user to retire to his gaming cavern and spend his nights exploring fantastic worlds without companions, but many games now also include immense online matchmaking forums. The graphic to the right depicts online gaming from one such game known as Halo 4. Its multiplayer environment has many features, but it is perhaps most remarkable for the network it can create. One can play on teams identified by colors, and teammates can come from many different places and backgrounds. Those with Xbox 360 headsets can speak with their teammates. These conversations do not have to be limited to gaming but can focus on any desirable topic. The teamwork involved in the gaming process can potentially result in the building of ongoing relationships (or networking) with a diverse array of people.

The possibilities associated with gaming networks are well outlined by Jane McGonigal in “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” Games provide those involved with a reason to trust others, engage in challenges that can be overcome, and remain occupied. As McGonigal argues, this can lead to a sense of optimism, the creation of a social fabric (network), a belief in productivity, and respect for a good narrative. If these traits could be applied in the real world, a new dedicated generation of thinkers and problem solvers would emerge to combat the emerging problems of the day. They would not be as inhibited as many others by preconceived notions and limitations because of their familiarity to adapting to different worlds. The new group of thinkers might be the all-important spark of innovation described by Anderson.

I am hesitant, however, to believe in this vision of the future to the extent that McGonigal seems to believe in it. I question whether or not gamers are as willing as McGonigal seems to suggest to begin to play games that would help solve problems in the real world. A game that forces one to respond as they would if petroleum was in drastic decline would be helpful in finding new ways to combat the issue, but would the game be as attractive to users as Halo 4? Would gamers abandon games designed for sheer entertainment in exchange for those with a more notable social function, or is their goal to be entertained more than anything else? I also think gaming companies would fight against suggestions which would lead people toward playing games produced by governmental agencies or research institutions for the simple reason that profits would suffer.

The ideas of Seth Priebatsch in “The Game Layer on Top of the World” also make me question whether gaming networks could be harnessed for purposes less benign than the accumulation of ideas. He suggests that the game layer is to influence what social networks have been to forming connections. Gamers are used to following predetermined paths of action and completing itemized tasks. They are also very susceptible to pressure from other gamers and have long been following the orders established by game designers. Could games then be harnessed to push gamers toward certain thoughts, conclusions, and actions?

My personal opinion is that social entertainment networks currently provide an excellent forum for conversation and debate. I also think they are a resource that can and should be utilized to generate ideas and stimulate debate designed to solve societal problems. However, accomplishing these goals might be exceptionally difficult if gamers are not amenable to change or if there are those who try to manipulate the situation for personal gain.