Saturday, February 17, 2007

Critical Mass, Tipping Points, and Other Social Science Theories

While thinking long and hard about our three to five readers of this blog and why others don’t visit this site (putting aside the pedestrian nature of the writing) or why so few respond to any of the posts, mine or others’, I kept recalling two terms I came across a few years ago in The New Humanities Reader, (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) in an article called “The Power of Context—Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime.” This article was in the text for freshman writing students at Rutgers University but was actually a chapter from a book by Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, 2000). In epidemiology, “tipping point” is used to describe that instant when a virus reaches critical mass and becomes an epidemic. Gladwell wondered if the same principle could apply to ideas that could spread through a culture in the same way that a disease could. We might think of a critical mass in a classroom or a faculty or department as that number of people that it takes to allow a reasonable exchange of ideas.

Perhaps you were lucky once to have a small class but then one day, a number of students were absent and the rest of the students, as well as you, perhaps, wondered “whether we are going to do any real work today” and perhaps all of you acted differently because the class dynamics had changed. You no longer had that critical mass that was necessary to conduct business, at least in the eyes of many involved. This summer, I had only two students in an advanced business writing class that met partly on-line and partly in class. We discovered that with only two students and me, it was hard to keep the threaded discussions running that were built into the curriculum. We lacked a critical mass.

So I’d been wondering for weeks about whether we had a critical mass at this blog site and what it would take to reach a tipping point where many more people would flock to the site and a fair percentage would post a response. How could I create an epidemic? How could I bring about big change? I went back to the article and I reviewed some of the other principles that Gladwell used.

Gladwell’s chapter presented an incident on a NY City subway train in 1984 when Bernard Goetz shot four young black men who were being rowdy on his train and eventually harassed him for money. Goetz was easily acquitted of the charges the first time, even being called the “Subway Vigilante” for standing up to these kids who typified the perceived troubles that NYC residents faced both below ground and above. Some would argue that Goetz was emotionally and psychologically predisposed to this kind of violent action because of the way he was raised.

Gladwell points out how horrible the subways were in those days with their dim lights, lack of transit police, steaming hot trains or freezing cold cars in the winter, an inability to stop people from fare-beating, the presence of muggers and drug dealers, and many other declining conditions. The Transit Authority brought in David Gunn to right all of the wrongs and told him to fix the big problems. Gunn, however, was familiar with the “Broken Windows” theory that holds that if there are broken windows in a building, the longer they remain, they also become an invitation for others to break more windows. The theory is that such visible destruction is a clear sign of chaos and lack of law and order. Others often not inclined to break a law will do so more easily when there is nobody running the ship. Gunn used the broken windows theory and decided to begin with the graffiti which was an outward sign that chaos ruled the subways. The TA enacted a vigorous campaign to take out of commission all cars that had graffiti painted on them. Since the culprits were kids and it took them three evenings to first paint the outside or the car white, then draw the outline the next night and finally fill in their designs on the third night, the TA had crews that would paint over (or scrub off) this paint the next day, leading these kids to break down in tears when they kept getting thwarted. Soon, the graffiti stopped appearing both on the trains and on the subway walls.

The TA undertook a number of other very concerted efforts, including going after fare cheaters. The police had considered it a waste of the great amount of time that it took to arrest and book these offenders but when they got a bus converted to a police van-station house, they could round up a large number of fare cheaters, book them all at once, discover some as having other records, and, in general, put an immediate stop to this problem. The people who would ordinarily pay their way but would follow others when nobody stopped the cheating were the first to stop and the rest saw that such cheating didn’t pay.

Gladwell’s point is that once small things lapse and people perceive that things are declining or out of control, many people will begin to withdraw, show fewer signs of caring, and even contribute to the rapid decline. But Gladwell also showed that just as there is a tipping point for decline, so there is a tipping point for turning things around. He shows how this is environmental, that is, based on our surroundings and that these are little things.

In our schools, classrooms, departments, and faculties, people will respond favorably or unfavorably, based on the conditions. It may be in the perceived lack of personal concern for them, the way the physical room, office, or plant is run, kept up, maintained. It could be the coffee and refreshments with a nice table cloth at meetings or the care taken in written announcements or in other ways in which people are greeted and communicated with. How our students respond in the classroom may be based on how the room looks and the care given. I remember talking with a middle school teacher at the end of the day as we sat in the last period class room, the very one I started in during first period. The room was now filthy with papers and scraps all over the floor, so much that you would have to lift your feet to avoid stepping on some of the papers. The chalk board was a mess, partially erased, full of white smudges. When I commented on the paper, she said, shrugging her shoulders, that she saw it as “the sins of the day,” the natural build up of the “graffiti” of each class. Nothing had been done to eradicate the mess so others continued to contribute to it, creating a declining condition that I believe contributed to a general decline in other things. This could have been reduced any where along the day by a teacher, creating a tipping point by policing the room, with or without student help, making the room presentable for the next class and reducing exponentially the mess at the end of the day that may have resulted in a more difficult group of students to teach.

I don’t want to dwell on papers on the floor but to consider our environment and the little things when we want to institute change or redirect a group. How much we can change things may depend less on whether we are born leaders with great charisma, giving evidence to the term the “Law of the Few.” Many of us may not be one of those special few people who can lead by means of our charisma but we may be able to change the environment. We may be able to create tipping points for positive action.

Recently, a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer read, “Harvard Looks to a Woman” and on another page, “Harvard poised to name its first female leader.” Drew Gilpin Faust will be named shortly as the president of Harvard. Not only does she have roots in the Philadelphia area, having taught at U. Penn for thirty years, but she represents the fourth women to be appointed to the top position in the eight Ivy League schools. The current president of Penn, Amy Guttman, in anticipating Faust’s appointment, said that this would be “an important tipping point” in higher education.” For the longest time, women were not permitted to be part of the environment that led universities. That seems to be changing now.

For seventeen years, I’ve operated my workshop classroom based on the three principles that Nancie Atwell first established in In the Middle—time ownership, and response, but I realized some years ago that for me, there was a fourth. I read that Donald Graves talked about invitation and he said that all the great teachers, no matter what their approach, operated by inviting students into the classroom and the work of the class by working side by side with the teacher. So I include invitation as my fourth principle and I find that it begins with a genuine invitation to do the things that show writing and reading to be powerful tools, inviting others to participate in the literate feast. I’ve also learned that the invitation includes a setting that is warm, respectful, and encouraging. I don’t always accomplish this but that is my goal.

I wonder how to create these conditions with this blog when blogging is so new and/or alien to most educators and, with all of the other demands on them, most feel they don’t have time for such activities. Can a blog site be an oasis for refreshment and reflection rather than a huge mountain to climb? I wonder how that could happen.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Literacy Leaders Institute

NCTE this year is holding its second Literacy Leaders Institute, featuring Kylene Beers and Bob Probst in June.... Those names speak for themselves. Maybe some of you attended last year and might have a word to say.

You can get more information at the following link:

Personal Response to Reading—Do Students Need to Read Literature?

Personal Response to Reading—Do Students Need to Read Literature?

Some weeks ago, I had a twenty-nine year old student tell me that he hadn’t written a literary letter to anyone yet because “I can’t stand the book. It’s boring and I can’t relate to anything in it.” He was almost defiant in his looks and in his words, suggesting that I couldn’t make him write his responses to a text he hated, found boring, and saw as unconnected to his life. The student was a fairly articulate student in a developmental English course. The book was James’ McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water. More than half of the students in the class were from a minority background and most of them enjoyed the text very much. Some saw a similarity with the poverty of the book, some with the large family, some with the loss of a father, some with the skin color of the narrator, and some with a particular family trait or event. I sat down and talked with the student for the last ten minutes of the period and he told me how he had tried, even reading one chapter over again, to try to relate. He seemed frustrated. I told him I would help him with this problem in the next class and off he went.

Then I got to thinking about why John had such a difficulty. It seemed that he felt that the only way he could relate to the text is if the circumstances of the characters were the same as his circumstances. The fact that he wasn’t black and poor seemed to be a major obstacle. It occurred to me that John was indicating a feeling of “self-centeredness,” the idea that a text has to be “all about me or I’m not interested.” And that me issue, for John, is the circumstances of his life, not who he is as a member of the human race. He wants to see the familiar people and events of his life played out for him.

So why is it important that John be able to relate to this book? Ehrenworth and Vinton in The Power of Grammar write about finding good mentor texts for students to read and imitate in their own writing. They quote Annie Dillard:

“Why are we reading, if not in the hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mysteries probed?” (1989, 72).

They then show an example: “A text that might do that for us (illustrate the power of reading) is this excerpt from Jazmin’s Notebook by Nikki Grimes:

It seems to me that ideas are like gossamer, or mist, fragile as a dream forgotten as soon as you awake. I guess that’s why they’re so hard to hold on to. But that’s also what makes them wonderful, and more than worth all the trouble.

I was in Central park last Saturday when the idea of a poem sprinkled down on me, like a sudden shower, and I knew it wouldn’t last long.

I grabbed a pencil from behind my ear. I’d stuck it there that morning when I’d done homework, and boy was I glad. Panic set in, though, when I checked my pockets for paper. Wallet and keys were all I had on me because I’d gotten the notion from a kid at school that traveling light was cool.

No problem, I told myself, and went up to the first stranger I could find to beg a notebook page, or a napkin, or even a piece of tissue. But as soon as the lady saw me approach, she waved me away. Another woman told me, flatly that she didn’t believe in handouts. Several others eyed me suspiciously. Judging by the fear in their white faces, the fact that I was, at that moments, a frantic, wild-eyed, Black teenager probably had something to do with it. But who had time to dispel racial stereotypes? The poetry raining down on me was slowing to a trickle. If I didn’t find writing paper soon, the poem would be lost.” (1998, 25)

“Reading is about living in a world of words and images and ideas. These are illusive if we don’t pin them down on paper or make sure that we can revisit the ideas again and again in written texts. Reading is about having a lifetime pass to travel to those ideas and images through the words on a page.”

(Since I wrote some parts of this piece months ago, I can no longer tell if that last paragraph is something I actually wrote or just copied from a text to give to my writing methods students. I have looked from cover to cover though several texts that it might have come from but can not find it. It sounds too good to be something I would write and yet I don’t want to leave it out. So I just put quotation marks around it. Is that a bad thing?)

Anyway my son, Brian, told me about a person he knew who would never read a novel or go to a movie. “Why would I ever want to read or see something that is not true, that is made up by somebody? That’s just a waste of time,” he said.

It seems to me that reading is the opportunity to travel into different worlds and live there for a while, experiencing all of the joys and horrors of those places and still be able to come back home and think about, relating them to our own. However, for a student like John who couldn’t locate similarities in the reading world, it could be an opportunity to exchange worlds with another human being, feel what he felt, suffer what she did, and then consider how we would have fared if we were placed in that world instead of the one we are in. That kind of experience broadens us and allows us to understand and reach out to others.

There have been movements that have advocated the elimination of all fiction (and perhaps even memoir) and instead have required that students read only texts of an expository nature because “those are the texts of the business world” and the world of most of our lives. The book publishing industry is concerned about the decline of fiction. The American reading public is spending less and less time reading this genre. Should we be concerned about this? Is there anything we can do? Is there anything we have done to cause this? I think the way we have taught literature as artifacts to be studied and even to bow down before has been just one of the contributing factors in the decline of book which are most often “done” in secondary schools.

How does one answer such attacks about getting rid of fiction and how does one explain to students like John the value of reading books that seemingly are about things that we haven’t personally experienced? Do we need to have well-prepared answers for such situations, in the same way some football quarterbacks have the plays taped to their arms so they don’t have to think to call the plays. The plays have been “scripted” for them by an experienced coach. When we have some of our core beliefs attacked, we respond in frustration without some well thought our answers. What would some “scripted” responses to these questions look like for some of us who are not practiced in calling good responses?

It is now weeks since my first discussion with John. I have tried and he just shakes his head and says that he can’t get into the book. He is stubborn in many other ways as well so this is not just about a book. Still, he holds that books that you can’t relate to can’t be responded to. What would you say to my student, John, to my son’s friend, or to the critics of literature? Or would you agree with me that we haven’t treated literature well (apologies to Billy Collins) by tying it to a chair with a rope and beating it with a hose, trying to get out of it what it really means, quizzing it and testing it to death?