The Cream Cheese Wontons of Expectation

Last night, my husband and I were talking about our trial run chewing the chalky tablet that is lactaid to assist with bowls of old-fashioned mint chip.

Had it worked for him as well as it had for me a few days previous? I asked.

It had, he agreed. Now, I want some [expletive] cream cheese wontons, he added.

Great! You should put some of these packets in your backpack––

The rest of my suggestion, that he could then order cream cheese wontons at work with a take-out lunch order, died without words.

Did you forget? he asked gently.

That’s how this whole week has been. The bizarre familiarity in which my mind is sometimes able to forget what is happening around us. To be clear, it’s not like it hasn’t impacted me. We are both extraordinarily privileged to be working at home and to have spaces and internet and technology where we can do so with relative ease, but I work in study abroad so I have been focused on mitigating the impact for students however I can for most of my waking hours for 3 weeks. I’m messaging right before bed. I dream about this. I wake and check for updates with sleep-blurred eyes.

And yet the illusion of normalacy remains in every normal dinner, in every show watched, and game played.

Hank Green made a video on the Sudden Obliteration of Expectation. It’s 11 minutes long, and worth every minute, so please go watch it.

In the video, Hank Green talks about points in our life where we have to wrestle with realizing that our expectations will not come to pass, that the plans we have are changed, and we have to rethink our assumptions. At the end he asks for suggestions of what we might call this end of expectation, a question that I went to bed on my mind.

Susan Bluck and Tilmann Habermas have written about the concept of a life story schema, a set of fundamental cognitive structures that we’ve built up into a narrative to understand how a life works. Maybe in our culture you are born, go to school for a while, get a job, get married, have children, get that promotion, and someday retire to spend time with your grandchildren. Maybe your spouse is going to the office on Monday, where he can order Chinese takeout and finally eat those cream cheese wontons he’s been craving. We have an understanding of how the small events build up to a greater whole, with sense made of from actions, themes, and events. These structures give us order and clarity, help us to understand were we are in the scheme of things. There’s value to this, in that we can make plans for the future and take action that we think will work toward this outcome.

That’s not to say that there isn’t value to breaking out of theses expectations. Study abroad, for example, is fundamentally about creating opportunity for the disorienting dilemma, in which traveling to a new location is the start of transformative learning. By seeing how are our expectations aren’t universal, we can realize what we have taken for granted, and start to recognize the role we can have in shaping our own and the larger social schema and narratives.

And right now we are all in the midst of this disorienting dilemma.

All around the world, we are all running into what I propose describing as “narrative dissolution”: The expected trajectory of our stories is coming apart, the threads unbraiding into a future yet to be defined. Some of results will be out of our control, especially the larger decisions of governments and the results of a cratering economy. Yet we each have our own threads in this and the chance to come together and consider what new stories are possible now.

That’s not to say that any of this is easy. This is painful and scary, and we must do everything we can to help those who are the most affected by things they can’t control. But as we make the hard decisions that are pulling apart the pre-woven life narratives of 2020, I hope that we can use this time of change to work together to create new paths forward, new narratives of possibility, that embrace this opportunity for a better, more caring world.

I don’t know what is coming, but I am heartened to see where we have already started.

Bluck, S., & Habermas, T. (2000). The life story schema. Motivation and Emotion, 24(2), 122-147. 

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Market Forces and Higher Education

As part of a movement toward more open discussion of the challenges and opportunities for higher education, I’m going to post a few of the reflections I’m writing for class here throughout this semester.

Many believe that the marketplace has overtaken state government as the dominant external force shaping (and reshaping) American higher education, even for public colleges and universities. As noted earlier, government support is not keeping pace with educational expenditures. Thus in many ways, the market is having more bearing on higher education than government. (Eckel & King, 2004, p. 15)

The shift away from state government funding across the country has often necessitated a rise in tuition and fees for students (Eckel & King, 2004). This change in the dynamic of who is funding education has also led to universities pressing for increased independence, so as to make changes to better meet market pressures. Such changes may include adjusting academic programs to accommodate changing employer needs and potential students’ perceived needs; increasing the size of programs in fields like engineering and business; or increasing research in areas of demand. Potential students, tasked with paying for an increasing share of the cost, have also started to view education as a financial investment that should have a commensurate return (Hensley et al., 2013). Concerns about opportunity in an era of increasing income inequality (Gould, 2019) make the stakes of this investment higher. This change also ties into a re-emergence of viewing education as primarily fulfilling vocational and competency-based purposes (behaviorist perspective), rather than one of whole person growth (liberal arts and humanistic perspectives) or social improvement (critical perspective) (Elias & Merriam, 2005).

I find this shift concerning because it pushes universities to prioritize in ways that may short-change education and ultimately not serve students’ and societies’ better interests. Students can see how learning to code would lead to a job but complain about taking humanities courses that do not offer as clear an outcome. Yet experts such as Michelle Baker (2018), the Executive CEO of Mozilla, argued that in the light of how new technologies unmoored by ethical considerations have negatively impacted the world, ethical frameworks should be included as part of a new wholistic STEM education model. In international education, the shift to a market-based perception of education has also led to some students increasingly viewing study abroad as a consumer service that should include all of the amenities of home, and should allow them to avoid the discomforts that may be endemic to a particular location (Ogden, 2008). However, avoiding the discomforts of study abroad also often means avoiding the opportunity to grow, wherein the challenges of embodied immersion into another culture lead to greater understanding of self and others.

The shift toward a consumer mindset, even in states like North Dakota where higher education remains relatively well-funded at the state level, is a challenge. Universities around the country need to recruit students, balance academic freedom against economic demand, and create new systems of cooperation across campuses. As we face these changes, wrestling with the questions of what we think the purpose of education is, how to best reshape systems into serving those goals, and how to communicate the value of such systems to current and potential students is one that I am hoping to discuss more in my class this semester and across campus.

References

Baker, M. (2018, December 19). The way we teach STEM is out of date. Here’s how we can update it. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/12/hacking-the-stem-syllabus

Eckel, P. D., & King, J. E. (2004). An overview of higher education in the United States: Diversity, access and the role of the marketplace. American Council on Education.

Elias, J. L., & Merriam, S. B. (2005). Philosophical foundations of adult education. Krieger Publishing Co.

Gould, E. (2019, March 27). Decades of rising economic inequality in the U.S. Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/decades-of-rising-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s-testimony-before-the-u-s-house-of-representatives-ways-and-means-committee/

Hensley, B., Galilee-Belfer, M., & Lee, J. J. (2013). What is the greater good? The discourse on public and private roles of higher education in the new economy. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 35(5), 553-567.

Ogden, A. (2008). The view from the veranda: Understanding today’s colonial student. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 15, 35-55.

This week was my first time presenting at a professional conference. While I’ve done many presentations for students and parents, it was different to assume a role of “expert” (or at least as someone with something of value) for experienced professionals. It went well, and I was so excited to see lively discussion at the tables.

One thing I hadn’t thought about is that yeah, there’s generally the idea of shaping the conversation in field by participating, but that applies in the micro sense as well. It was neat to be able to have the smaller conversations with people for the rest of conference about their thoughts and takeaways from my draft meaning making framework. It was also delightful to hear that people didn’t mind learning a little theory as well.

A call for an ISRB (Internet Service Review Board)

Much like research 50+ years ago was mistreating the research subjects, internet service providers (social media etc.) are mistreating users through engagement goals at the expense of mental health, monetization of data, and other forms of data mining. Expecting individual users to be experts on the practices and outcomes for every online service is unrealistic. Research needs an IRB (institutional review board) approval, why can’t we do the same for internet services?

UP IS WHAT Now?

This week I decided to get serious with studying Japanese and started with Wanikani, an online system for learning kanji. Using a system of mnemonics and spaced repetition software (SRS) WK is designed to help you learn radicals, kanji, and compounds. First, you cram the new material into your brain, and then a few hours later WK will quiz you. Do well, and it’ll extend the time until it asks you again. Miss one, and you’ll see it again sooner. Repeat, repeat, repeat until learned.

What seems so promising about WK is that while it’s relatively easy to learn a single use for a kanji, I’ve never had a system that was good about teaching me multiple uses of that kanji. I would learn that 上 is the preposition for UP, pronounced ue, and then off to the next kanji. When I’d see that 上 in a sentence, half the time it was being used in a sense I hadn’t learned yet, a grammatical brick wall. WK isn’t going to let me off so easy–instead, it makes me learn 上, 上がる, 上げる, and 上手 (up, to rise, to raise, and skilled) in rapid succession.

I’m also currently working on my preliminary literature review, linking affective experiences, conceptual schema, cognitive structures and language, and narrative. One part of this is looking at how language develops, and how the metaphoric words we use expose the way we’ve grouped ideas (schema). The idea of an UP is inherently linked to the experience we have as a person; UP requires a perspective, a vantage from which UP can be above. And having that sense of the relative direction, we have linked it to positive concepts: HAPPY IS UP so we can feel up and our spirits can rise, and GOOD IS UP so things can look up and hit a peak. These categories are complex, built from our physical experiences into a net of understanding, with tiny differences between UP, OVER, ABOVE, OUT, and ALONGSIDE all having linked but different ideas. In her book Story of Over, Claudia Brugman reportedly found over 100 related meanings for the word OVER! (More on all of this in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff.)

Which brings me back to my friend 上. Japanese kanji are inherently visual, and there’s a visible representation in 上 as UP (especially when compared to down/下), so when I look at the vocabulary I’m learning I can see abstractly the connection. But I haven’t internalized these connections quite yet. Instead, WK is teaching me mnemonics that make what is abstract to me now be relatable to my existing English-based mind. Today, I’m memorizing a toe on the ground (seriously!) but someday soon the words will form into internal links of meaning.

And so I keep going, day by day, using brute force to build the schema connections in my mind, all to the end that these meanings can become as natural and opaque as cognitive structures in my native language.

Which is all to say that researching the process while experiencing it is fascinating…enough so that I feel the urge to HAPPY IS UP jump for joy!