distillation: different ways of thinking and the co-construction of common goals

I asked students in the Group Dynamics course to engage with the title of John Robison’s book, look me in the eye, in order to investigate the meanings associated with eye contact and then consciously link that range of meanings to the notion of indirect interaction. The few students who tackled this challenge in full show how communicating across differences is quite a challenging task. Buckets34 discerned no link but trusted one must exist (to which I’d say, “no, not unless we make it!”) Freshkicks6 wrote:

In class when we commented on Steph writing sideways, she responded with, “Maybe I’m a sideways type of person.” In our culture it is expected (and we have all learned from a similar frame) that when you write, you try to write straight, horizontal, left to right. The fact that she didn’t do this, stood out and allowed us even to poke fun at her about it. Writing straight, left to right, is a cultural norm, just like looking someone in the eyes is when having a conversation. Often times, because someone does something out of ordinary, we like to comment on it and point it out. The author of “Look Me in the Eyes” talks about this often because people either make fun, or just don’t acknowledge his “sideways” behavior, so he never learns to act “normal.”

Several students comment on how the title provides a frame, which Thumpasorus suggests is a kind of proof that people actually think differently:

“Each person’s thought process brought him or her to a different conclusion about the meaning behind the title. After reading the title I thought “[Robinson] meant it figuratively. That is, he meant to say, examine me closely . . . as I read I found there was a double meaning.” I can now see that other people have thought processes different than mine, which can bring them to conclusions equally as valid. Robinson’s thought process certainly functions differently than many of us. This was expressed especially well in his explanation of his smile at the news of a death of a stranger. As we have been slowly been learning since the beginning of the semester, Steph too has a thought process somewhat foreign to many of ours. This was quite clear when she started “writing sideways” in an attempt to express herself graphically, leaving us with confused, amused expressions”

Arturo, a colleague from Business Strategy & Organizational Theory (School of Management), describes the juxtaposition of John’s and my thought processes thus:

I just finished reading your exchange with John Robison. I have to say that it is very interesting at so many levels: from structure and style to goals and understandings. It is like observing a dance where the rhythm is a 2 by 4 where one of you follows the 2-tempo while the other goes for the 4-tempo. Both of you are dancing to the same tune yet an external observer can see the differences in “beat”. On one hand you are articulate and constantly link concepts left-to-right. You use your own voice to bring in your student’s ideas and expectations and frame them in the context of his appearance in the class. Yet during all this process you do not forget your own role as mediator/referee of this engagement. On the other hand he goes linear, ignores the social innuendos. He focuses on personal goals yet he makes a noticeable effort to address your issues as they link to his ultimate goal: awareness on the autistic condition. Nevertheless when all this is happening he is still a curious mind. He seeks to grasp where are you coming from in your interpretation of his world / words as you do not conform to any standard that his linear thoughts would have foreseen (he is a linear thinker while you are a sideways traveler). So far it looks like he has partially moved from seeking/perceiving you as a means to his goal (awareness of autism) to exploring/understanding you as a means for understanding himself. He used your “eyes” to see himself from the outside at a group communication level.

Certainly I can identify with these statements: I perceive similarities in the way John and I approach the world as out-of-the-norm (noted by Fresh and Thump), and I am aware of the differences articulated by Arturo: can a strictly linear thinker and a sideways traveler form enough of a bond to co-construct a common goal? A longer exposition of this question is posted in my teaching blog as I urge students to consider deeply: Audience: to imagine or ignore?

2 thoughts on “distillation: different ways of thinking and the co-construction of common goals”

  1. I just read what you sent, and I do think next week would be good if it’s OK for you. What time does your class meet, and when and where?
    I have been told that I am exactly the same in person as I appear in the book, and literary people say that’s very rare. I can’t account for it, but that’s the observation.
    As to being a fish in a bowl . . . I suggest to that person that he is as much a fish to be observed as me. It is actually quite educational and enlightening for me to see and read responses to my thoughts. So who knows . . . your thoughts today may be a quote in my next book.
    People often ask me how I am able to push myself and if I have tips for them. I am sorry to say that’s one of the things I am trying to unravel. It is indeed one of the secrets of my success. Sadly though, it is just as secret from me as it is from you.
    And as to extra-class encounters . . . . the whole reason this has happened is that blogs have appeared and proliferated in the past few years. For some time, authors have monitored web pages in which their names appear, principally to obtain news of their writing (reviews, commentary, etc.)
    At first, that writing was all from professional journalists of one sort or another. Then, bloggers came along and suddenly everyone could review a book or offer commentary. Some writers – me among them – began interacting with people in the blog community and indeed the blog folks were one of the big early driving forces for my own book’s acceptance.
    One day, out of the blue, some blog posts appeared from college students in Canada. It was apparent they were reading my book as part of a class assignment. I was quite surprised. Then I thought, why not? Professors tell the students to post the essays on blogs and they can get at them any time. 24/7 access, and no lost papers. No crummy handwriting. And I thought, if the professor can comment, why not me?
    So I did.
    Initially, teachers were surprised. They’d grown up with the idea that interpretation of class books was up to them alone. And now . . . the author sticks his nose in . . .
    I think we are going to see more of this, where authors interact with classes who use their work. I think it’s fascinating.
    It’s worth noting that just because I am the author, I do not have the “final word” in many cases. Yes, it’s true that I can say you’re wrong in some cases, like with respect to specific facts. But in other cases, your interpretation of my words may be just as valid as my own, and we can all learn when that takes us in unexpected
    You can add these comments to your blog thing if you want . . . I tried but it did not work.

  2. hi John,
    I am not sure how tomorrow will go! (Can we ever predict how human interaction will happen?) I am still considering what to write as prelude/introduction to the session, but I wanted to give you a heads-up. First, a rumor has gone around that the students don’t really need to produce an actual wiki/website. This is false. They must produce a final product! Second, they have been reformulated into brand new teams and are thus going through the early stages of group development: deciding how polite to be, and when/how hard to challenge each other….only two (of nearly ten) teams completed their homework assignment on time. Eeck!
    My own imagination, at this very moment, is that you are absolutely correct in examining us as fish-in-a-bowl. 🙂 We do a structured activity in class called a “fishbowl” in which some members of class talk about some issue or problem and the rest of us observe their decision-making processes and other group dynamics. We will definitely do one (or two?) of those. Also, they are supposed to be ready (in each team) to make a brief presentation on WHAT they are going to do for the overall wiki/web project.
    The way I perceive your participation right now – if this seems good to you? – is something along the lines of you watching us go through these activities and then either addressing us about what you see (as in a “presentation”) and/or you (and maybe me, too?) participate in a fishbowl with some of the students to talk more indepth about the process/dynamics of where we are in terms of the overall project. What you wrote about “the secret” of success is what I have in mind – not that we will figure it out, but that we might identify some tricks that help and/or obstacles that hinder our progress.
    PLUS, my own opinion is that talking with you will be beneficial and produce great learning for the students (and me!)

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