Thursday, November 16, 2006

Of Giftedness, Intensity, Sensitivity, & Idiosyncracy

In my experience, giftedness tends to be framed in terms of intelligence and achievement. That frame not only leaves many things about it invisible and unexplained, but makes many other characteristics common across gifted children appear to be incongruent with their giftedness. Such interpretations position gifted individuals to be bewildered by why they are the only people among their peers who seem to respond to their circumstances so intensely.  Such interpretations position those who spend time with them to wonder why people who are "so smart" or "so talented" can't figure out how to just relax and go with the flow. The "obvious" explanation is that it must be the result of a lack of maturity or self-control. This "obvious" answer causes the gifted to question why they can't seem to change successfully, even when they really want to do so. That, in turn, evokes deep doubts about the veracity of the labels that have been attached to them, which destabilizes their faith in themselves to the point that it can impede their ability to accomplish even the simplest of tasks.

Thus, after reading this summary of Dabrowski's ideas on the subject (be sure to explore the related links to specific sensitivities once you read through the bulleted lists), I was almost sad—wondering how it could be possible that I’ve lived my whole life without understanding some of these things, wondering how it could be possible that in spite of my many experiences with giftedness--friends, my teacher training, the 13 years I spent as a teacher who had many gifted students in her classes--that I never put it all together quite like this before!

Other websites contributed useful pieces to my understanding as well. Although Parenting Emotionally Intense Gifted Children focuses primarily on the emotional dimension of the sensitivities described on the page above, I find it interesting that the sensitivity is, in part, attributed to physical roots. “ Emotionally intense gifted children exhibit a super sensitivity of the nervous system that makes them acutely perceptive and sensitive, more discriminating of external stimuli and more analytical and critical of themselves and others.” It is easy to see how such sensitivity would affect every aspect of one’s existence. I liked the microscope analogy from the section entitled Differences on the Helping Your Highly Gifted Child web page, and appreciated the concept of Multiple Ages as a way of explaining some of the paradoxes of giftedness. This asynchronous development is reinforced in the paragraph titled Gifted Child Development Center and helps to explain (for me, at least) the ways that common characteristics of giftedness “clash” with one another in ways that produce problems. The entire paragraph on School is useful, particularly the first sentence, the elephant analogy, and the idea that sometimes the highly gifted may look “less capable” instead of more capable than their peers. Finally, the paragraph on Lack of Fit seems to summarize many of the key issues inherent in giftedness.

In short, the idea that “intensity” is often the result of profound “sensitivities” to certain aspects of experience not only illuminated my own experiences with gifted children, students, and adults, but also helped me to understand the idiosyncracies of people in general in important new ways. After all, the scriptures teach us that everyone has at least one gift or talent. What if instead of viewing idiosyncracies as problems, we approached them with the perspective that they might be clues that would help us to identify the gifts of those around us?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Ever So Elegant Universe


She had encountered several bloggers who seemed to use their blogs as a notepad--especially when sitting in conferences and professional meetings. The notes were often very telegraphic in nature (as notes tend to be) and often intermingled with personal observations, applications, and/or metacommentary. She found that she really appreciated such notes because she could quickly get a sense of the key ideas without having to wade through tons of text or added interpretations.

On the other hand, she found that she had tremendous difficulty posting her thoughts in that fashion. Perhaps the strategy worked well when one was attempting to sift through someone else's pre-organized presentation, but she suspected that her present thoughts would appear to be gobbledygook to the casual observer unless and until she added a bit of context and signposted the way through the web of conceptual connections her brain had been making. She wasn't even sure what to make of them, so she couldn't imagine that they would make sense to anyone else! However, someone had told her once that writing is not about telling what you know, it is about figuring out what you think. Well, she certainly needed to do that, so . . .

She was also fascinated by several recent conversations she had had in which she had tried to elucidate her thinking for others. Bouncing around from concept to concept during the course of her conversations was helping her to begin to untangle the threads of association that bound them, and to thicken the connections between them. However, she was intrigued by how difficult it was to marshall all of those beautiful and complex clumps of thought into a linear and sensible package. How does one preserve and convey the beauty and dynamic/reciprocal elegance of a magnificent array of wildflowers in a static flower arrangement? An artistic eye, a skillful hand, and a beautiful vase all help, but much is lost in the "translation!"


So, I've made it to p. 176 of The Roots of Things, and to Ch. 10 (p. 276) of The Elegant Universe. I'm left with much to ponder and little to say except, "Wow! Is it ever elegant!" (And I'm pleased to be able to include that word with a purposeful eye toward its mathematical connotations!)

I was ineptly trying to explain the implications of the ideas to a friend, who sat and nodded politely. There was no reciprocal spark of response to indicate that I was successfully conveying any of it on even a superficial level. So I defaulted to superlatives, "It's absolutely elegant." As I was thinking about what I meant by that in hopes of being able to extract and convey its significance to her more clearly, the profundity of it all overwhelmed me and I surprised myself by spontaneously bursting into tears and exclaiming, "It's just so incredibly beautiful!"

Now honestly, what was THAT about?! Me crying over math? Granted, I've shed many tears over it during the course of my lifetime, but only in frustration; certainly never in admiration, much less the reverence, awe, and deep joy that accompanied these particular drops!

Yes, I will eventually get to WHY it is all so beautiful, but that post will take more time than I currently have to devote to it. And once I accomplish that, ohhhhhh the implications! I can't imagine how people would behave if they really understood! (Of course, that presumes that I am correct in thinking that I do!)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The ABCS: A Symmetry, Balance, Control

So I've been trying to get my life "under control" for some time now (a lifetime, to be quite honest). However, I've also been thinking about symmetry for quite some time now . . . first in terms of visual symmetry, but now in terms of other kinds of symmetry too. Breaks in symmetry really represent disruptions of a larger system, disjunctures in harmony, a lack of balance. They are also important signals (at least according to the quantum physics I've been reading) that something is amiss in one's theoretical framework.

"Let me answer your question using a symmetry argument. Symmetry is an important concept in science. You ask if I could combine my career with marriage, and yet very seldom is the same question asked of a man. That shows a lack of symmetry. Question: Is this lack of symmetry imposed by cultural differences or by nature itself? It seems to many that it has been imposed by tradition" (Weyland, 1984, p. 150).

Weyland, Jack. (1984). A new dawn. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company.

I was reminded of these musings when one of my clients today explained her thoughts about the problems created by "information asymmetry" in higher education as part of a paper she was writing. In thinking about education, I came to the conclusion that when we feel overwhelmed by the complexity of teaching, learning, or education in general, we attempt to "control" it by legislating it, wrapping it in policies and procedures, writing course syllabi, and assessing our efforts.

Then I started thinking about the movie, Space Camp--specifically, the scene where the female astronaut is in the gyroscope and is trying to "control" her situation, which is spinning out of control. The key to that situation was balance . . . in 3 dimensions.

It occurs to me that the same is true of life. It will ALWAYS be complex. It is IMPOSSIBLE to control it. Every time something changes in the system (which is constantly), imbalance is introduced in the system. It can feel chaotic, but the trick is to avoid the common response in which we instinctively try to impose order on the chaos by controlling it, and instead, allow ourselves to embrace the chaos, feel its rhythms, and eventually, realign the various dimensions of ourselves in such a way that we bring the various elements of the system back into balance (or harmony).

Musically speaking, we have to "listen" to our lives, and then seek to replace dissonance with the beautiful sound of resolving chords that restore harmony.

The Treekeepers

As I read this today, I was captivated by the metaphor used to describe the interplay between grief, regret, and profound sorrow. This really resonated with me.

"Day after day Soladin cried, not with great sobs, but with leaking tears of regret . . . . Yet the relief tears usually give never came, and her grief grew day by day, as if a grave were being dug inside her that could never be large enough for all she must bury" (Britton, 2003, p. 161).

Britton, Susan McGee. (2003). The treekeepers. NY: Dutton Children's Books. ISBN 0-525-46944-3.

Monday, September 11, 2006

I May Not Be Gifted, But I'm Definitely a Cheetah!

So, I'm a doctoral student. For those of you who have been spared the "pleasure" of that experience, let me clarify that this means I read hundreds of pages filled with multisyllabic words and -isms from academic articles, books, and journals every week, am supposed to produce scholarly "commentary" about them, and am presumably pursuing "my own work/research" in addition to whatever else I must do (in terms of assistantships or jobs) to support myself. I realize that I am privileged to have the opportunity, and, like many humans who find themselves in privileged circumstances, often take that blessing for granted.

This week, the "appetizer" was the assignment to read a chapter from one book. It was followed by a large salad--the assignment to consume the last 250 pages of a 500-page book. The main course involved ingesting another 250-page book in its entirety, and the "meal" concluded with one additional article for dessert. Lest you think me too whiny and ungrateful, let me give you just a little taste of the dessert, "In sum, Baudrillardian apocalypse, Foucauldian limit-attitude, Deleuzean nomadology, Lyotardian language games, Lacanian Imaginaries, Derridean 'play' and excessiveness--all of these are intersecting with feminist commitments to praxis in ways that position Jamesonian nostalgia and despair and Habermasian concerns about irrationalism as panic discourses that mark the displacement of Enlightenment hegemony over cultural theory" (Lather, 1997, pp. 235-236).

As I re-read that, I do gain a bit of insight into how quantum physics might suddenly seem like a treat! Granted, the above paragraph was probably the dessert on the menu most reflective of culinary experimentation, so in fairness, let's try one more that I found a bit more suited to my personal tastebuds, "In a methodology of the imaginary, metaphysical images are transmuted into dialectical images in a postsubjective, socially eneaged form of thinking and writing, a 'grammatopraxis' poised at the frontier of the sayable and the unsayable . . ." (Lather, 1997, p. 238). Before proceeding, I should also admit that I quite liked the work of this author. I found the research that she and her co-author attempted to be meaningful and rather daring in both content and form. The majority of issues they chose to engage seemed worthwhile, and the manner in which they chose to represent their understanding was quite innovative, thought-provoking, and satisfying.

Nonetheless, my intent here is to create a sharp contrast against which the reader will be able to more clearly see why the following few paragraphs from Stephanie Tolan's delightful essay, Is It a Cheetah?, impacted me so profoundly:

"However, schools are to extraordinarily intelligent children what zoos are to cheetahs. Many schools provide a 10 x 12 foot cage, giving the unusual mind no room to get up to speed. Many highly gifted children sit in the classroom the way big cats sit in their cages, dull-eyed and silent. Some, unable to resist the urge from inside even though they can't exercise it, pace the bars, snarl and lash out at their keepers, or throw themselves against the bars until they do themselves damage."

So, although I may not be gifted, for today at least, I sure can empathize with that cheetah! I think my "keepers" would admit that they've seen the snarling and the lashing, and my "bruises" have made me wish for more padded bars on more than one occasion. According to Tolan, "If a cheetah has only 20 mph rabbits to chase for food, it won't run 70 mph while hunting. If it did, it would flash past its prey and go hungry! Though it might well run on its own for exercise, recreation, fulfillment of its internal drive, when given only rabbits to eat the hunting cheetah will run only fast enough to catch a rabbit." So what is yet to be determined is whether I'm really a cheetah (if I weren't in this cage, would I really be capable of running 70 mph?), whether I'm truly in a cage (after all, life is all about perception, right?), and if both of those do prove to be true, will I go hungry if I ever manage to escape?!

Lather, P. (1997). In W. C. Tierney & Y.S. Lincoln, Representation and the text: Re-framing the narrative voice. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Conversation with a Black Hole

After giving the matter some significant thought, she wondered why she continued to choose black holes for friends. You know the type--the ones who don't allow even a photon of a reaction to escape the event horizon that invariably seems to separate them from all those who orbit them. What DID they do with everything they consumed, anyway? Did it just get sucked into oblivion, as though it had never existed in the first place? Was it stretched, crushed, or torn into pieces before it disappeared? Or did it exert some sort of enduring influence on the hole first? She really wondered.

Hi! Black Hole here. It's all about the energy. So much going on inside the hole that . . . If you are posting this in the blogosphere, that only means . . .

She also wondered if her superficial understanding of black holes was accurate, and decided to investigate. According to Ted Bunn, "As you would expect, the escape velocity depends on the mass of the planet: if the planet is extremely massive, then its gravity is very strong, and the escape velocity is high. A lighter planet would have a smaller escape velocity. The escape velocity also depends on how far you are from the planet's center: the closer you are, the higher the escape velocity."

She imagined that probably held true for any number of other contexts too--the larger the "mass" (a.k.a. importance? influence?) of the thought, word, habit, person, culture, or institution in one's life, and the closer one was to that entitity (in both time and space), the more influence their gravitational field would be likely to have, and the more difficult it would be to disengage oneself from that orbit.

It did make her wonder why negative words seem to have a much higher escape velocity than positive ones.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Roots of Things

For awhile now, I've been fascinated by the realization that the behavior of light, heat, energy, sound, color can all be described and represented, to some extent, in terms of waves. Because (at least at this point in my life) I believe that truth is consistent across contexts, and that the observation of similar patterns across contexts is a sure sign that something fundamentally important is at play, I started wondering about the potentially important truths embedded in that phenomenon.

As I explored, I discovered that light is cropping up as an important theme in all sorts of unusual places--Appliance Design magazine regularly contains articles that refer to light-based innovations, including the use of blue light to reduce bacteria in the mouth that causes tooth decay, the use of light to weld certain plastics, etc. Other articles in science magazines talk about things like quantum dots, the use of light as a mechanism for storing information, or the influence that light has on children's ability to learn (in one study, full spectrum lighting improved test scores by something like 67% . . . but replacing flourescent lights with full spectrum lights is expensive . . . so we continue to default to alternatives like attempting to use standardized testing to coerce change in student achievement).

All of these ideas seem to have a couple of things in common--a relationship to electromagnetic fields and, more generally, an association with quantum mechanics. Naturally, I wanted to know more about that. Unfortunately, math and I have not always been on speaking terms,
though, and I found that as a result, I didn't have the mathematical background to understand the answers to the questions I was asking. Fortunately, a friend of mine who is a theoretical mathematician, among other things, spent the better part of a year convincing me that math is a part of daily life, and that if I could live life, I could understand math. Through our conversations, coupled with a number of diagrams and three dimensional demonstrations, I learned about fractals, Julia sets, Mandlebrot spots, vanishing points, harmonics, vectors, pivot tables, and a host of other interesting things that I never knew existed and that I never could have guessed I would find so incredibly compelling. I suddenly had an appetite for things mathematical, and, more importantly, the confidence that I could digest them once I had consumed them.

Since then, I have been relying on sporadic, fortuitous contacts with physicists and mathematicians that life in a research one university affords, and their patient and good-humored explanations, to slowly fill in the gaping holes in my understanding of many of the fundamental principles that govern the world.

During one recent conversation of this nature, another friend suggested that I consult a book entitled, The Roots of Things: Topics in Quantum Mechanics for answers to some of my questions that were written for a lay person with only minimal references to math. Although I have to say that his definition of minimal and mine certainly differ, I have made it to page 63--pretty impressive for someone who finds that somnolence overcomes her the minute a mathematical equation crosses the page!

So, my next few postings will be an attempt to make sense of some of the things that I'm reading.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Textbook Transformations

Ads Coming to Textbooks

We've seen start-up companies change the face of a variety of industries, so the idea that a start-up company could exert sufficient influence on the markets to pressure textbook conglomerates to change is not unimaginable. However, the vignettes about textbook industries who have tried ad-filled textbooks and rejected the model is amusing to me in the sense that it epitomizes the one-chance-one-strategy-at-a-time, top-down, business model sort of approach (the most important people are the professors who decide what texts to use) instead of a more creative, flexible, imaginative approach that demonstrates an understanding of the "real" target audience (students), the pressures at play in the system (including the inflexibility of textbook conglomerates), and uses a bundled set of strategies to leverage change at multiple points in the system. I wonder if the textbook publishing industry will pay attention, or if it will wait until it finds itself scrambling to keep market share. I think in the digital age, it is dangerous to assume that the old models will continue to work, that bigger is better, that those with the most money will be the most likely to succeed. There are other kinds of capital besides that of a financial nature, and people are starting to figure out how to use it.

The "between the lines" part of this article is also interesting. The article begins with the premise that professors select textbooks because they are critical to students' learning. It continues to extrapolate that premise by suggesting that students who choose not to buy the texts must be missing out on the materials, and equates missed material as missed learning. If the initial premise was sound, the logic might hold, but . . . ;-)

The most interesting part of this model to me are the downloadable texts and iChapters. Convenient, customizable, economical, searchable . . . certainly likely to appeal to a generation of students who are constantly connected.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Of Conversations, Chopping, & Conceptual Cropping

So I've been thinking today . . .

I'm discovering that face-to-face conversations are critical components of my ability to synthesize. I know that I often prefer them to other media (assuming I have the option of an interesting one), but I wasn't totally aware of what they do for me until yesterday and today.

Had several interesting conversations with 4 different people in the last 2 days. All of them were about different topics, but I walked away with major insights from each one—insights that came after 10-15 minutes of conversation in almost every case (in other words, it wasn't the length of the conversation that produced the insight).

Explaining my thoughts to other people and having them bounce questions back helps me "crop" the ideas quickly (think of a chef chopping vegetables—slice, slice, slice so quickly and so decisively that you wonder how he manages to miss his fingers each time—well, I noticed my mind doing that today. One comment and slice, there went a huge chunk of the idea, a question and chop, there went another major piece, until after a few minutes, the whole thing is crystal clear and very condensed in my head.)

Applying the concept of cropping to ideas is interesting to me.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Cyberplanning & Virtual Community Development?!

So, I came across this article as the result of a Google Alert on light: A Red-Light District in the Comfort of My Own Home. I think American society is more influenced by childhood games like Red Light, Green Light than we might care to admit, for articles about "red-light" cameras and organizations getting the "green light" to move forward with some plan or other are quite pervasive. Just as I was ready to hit the delete key, however, I caught a glimpse of the annotation of the article and decided to give it a closer look. I was struck by the following ideas:

1) The "mapping" of cyberspace to the physical geography of a community. Sometimes I think we view them as completely separate, not recognizing how much our experiences in the physical world influence our expectations for and interactions with one another in the virtual one.

2) The issues the article raises regarding the growth and development of cybercommunities. Can you imagine a degree in "cyberplanning and virtual community development?" That is what reading this article evoked for me and it seems rather plausible in a weird sort of way!

3) How deeply entwined everything is with policy and how many questions about it are implied by this article. Who influences policy the most? Who makes final decisions about it? How many of the decisions surrounding policy are made behind closed doors before an issue even becomes a public one? Can the population at large really move policy in a particular direction? How much "public" would that take?

4) What makes the author think that a new "community of shadows" won't spring up in the "dark alleys and sewers" of the xxx district if it were created? People who wish to avoid scrutiny aren't necessarily going to hang out in the "approved for loitering" areas of a community!

5) The psychology implicit throughout this article is especially intriguing.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Of Blogging & "Knowledge Packages"

What struck me as I read this interview was the idea that blogging facilitates what is, in essence, a continuous process of identity development. It supports the synthesis and analysis of individual topics, facilitates recursive exploration of those ideas, and ultimately results in the production of a series of pre-fabricated "knowledge packages" (to quote Liping Ma) that are relatively easy to incorporate into larger works. My personal experience with blogging suggests that it goes a few additional steps. When I take the time to post to my blog, I find that it seems to function on both an emotional level and a cognitive level as a way of helping me to incorporate thoughts, understandings, feelings, and ideas into my conceptual framework in ways that ultimately support my ability to integrate them into the fabric of my life.

Mixing Methods

While cleaning up old e-mail, I was investigating the abstracts of a journal on Alegebraic Combinatorics. (Don't ask!) The keywords in the abstract for an article entitled, A Basis for the Non-crossing Partition Lattice Top Homology led me to some very interesting things. [By way of explanation, that particular article caught my eye for two reasons--the term lattice evoked an image of Rand Spiro's criss-crossing landscapes in my mind (which are of interest to me), and the idea of a lattice that didn't cross and wasn't partitioned was also intriguing to me].

I wanted to see a picture of what such a lattice might look like, so I did a quick image search for stack sortable permutation (not in quotation marks). It led me to this Wikipedia article in German. My German isn't so hot, but the diagram in the article intrigued me (as did the title of the article--Quicksort). So, I took the time to look for more clues and found the neat little link on the side that lets you try it out in English. Unfortunately, the English and the German articles do not contain identical information. However, they are similar enough for me to make sense of the German page. As I read both articles, I realized that math idiot that I am, I could still make sense of the concepts because of prior work I had done with pivot tables in Excel.

So why do I care about this abstract, mathematical stuff anyhow? Because it seems to me that this idea of partitioning can be combined with the concept of constant comparative analysis and then applied to the analysis of qualitative data. It also intrigues me because the examples given in both the German and the English articles are so visual, and I think being able to visually represent data is important (not only when one is ready to present it, but also during the analysis stage when one is trying to make sense of it). Different representations privilege or foreground different patterns, and that helps the researcher to see things that might previously have been invisible.

Now, add to the idea of inserting a partition or dividing line of sorts into the data and then sorting on either side of it, the concept of then organizing the data on either side of the partition in terms of binary sets. The images in this article on binary trees help illustrate this--especially those near the end. What I like about this idea is that sorting them in terms of binaries might help the researcher to allow outliers to remain inside the data set and, in so doing, to interpret the data with more accuracy.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Conversation Connoisseurs

Someone gave me the unexpected gift of a scintillating conversation on New Year's Eve. (Yes, I also did "fun" things like play Karaoke Revolution and Dance, Dance Revolution!) We got to chatting about why "good" conversations are so uncommon and about what makes a conversation a "good" one. As we talked we determined that most conversations are "chips and salsa conversations"—small talk that requires almost no preparation and very little knowledge of the other person. It spices up our lives a bit (depending, of course, on the brand of salsa) and the "chips" momentarily satisfy our hunger for social contact.

We decided that the second most common kind of conversations are "M&M conversations"—spontaneous, exchanges of banter that come in a variety of fun colors and flavors. Their candy-coating of fun tends to "melt in your mouth, not in your hands," but once you have ingested them and the delectable chocolate of playfulness that encases them dissolves, sometimes nothing else remains. Every once in awhile though, you may get lucky enough to find a tiny bit of substance (a.k.a. a peanut) at the core! Hence, their layered nature makes them a little more complex than "chips and salsa" conversations in many ways, and requires that the participants know one another to some extent (after all, some people are deathly allergic to peanuts!).

We termed the least common kind of conversations "lasagna conversations." These kinds of conversations consist of a wide variety of ingredients, demand quite a bit of preparation, and require a great deal of "cooking time" (i.e. it would be difficult to have such a conversation in the space of just a few minutes unless participants were to pre-cook some of the ingredients). When well-prepared, "lasagna conversations" are much more flavorful, nutritious, and satisfying than other conversations. However, many people avoid "making" such conversations because they are more expensive in that they require a greater investment of self, involve more effort, and require more skill. It takes both experience and practice to whip up a tasty one!

Gotta love lasagna (well, actually, I can think of a lot of other foods that I would prefer over lasagna, but for the sake of the metaphor . . . )!