Category Archives: Education/curriculum

The difference today is we don’t trust

Gary Snyder found place outside human destruction.
Today smoke haze means differently.
Garmin inReach Mini salvation.
Riot dying vaccine free.

Gary Snyder:


Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

compare his:


Burning the small dead

broke from beneath
     thick spreading
          whitebark pine.

a hundred summers
snowmelt rock and air

hiss in a twisted bough.

sierra granite;
     Mt. Ritter—
     black rock twice as old.

Deneb, Altair

The second Gary Snyder poem connects with that which is beyond human intervention. The first did when he wrote it, but presently does not. Different Deborah Numbers.

Enable students to see this? With what practical value?

Deborah number: time duration of an event/duration ofobservation. From the Song of Deborah, Judges 5:5: “The mountains flowed before the Lord.”

Gary Snyder poems reprinted in David Hinton, The Wilds of Poetry.

Garmin inReach Mini


In preparation for teaching college field studies in the Wrangell Mountains:

…to speak of atoms, cells, bodies, planets, galaxies, and the whole cosmos in relation to each other…

… a means of attending to one’s own perceptual field, systematically applying a measure to consistently compare the relative appearance of things. Scale is a phenomenological apparatus that permits us to speak of atoms, cells, bodies, planets, galaxies, and the whole cosmos in relation to each other. Scale is likewise a notation, a reference point whereby we relate one object (a galaxy) to our normal perceptual field (a meter). As a notation, scale’s significant rhetorical power manifests in its capacity to transform our understanding of our usual experience: in the capacity to conceive of this world, this body, and oneself according to these different scales. 

I explore scale through the scalar practices of both science and mysticism, with occasional reference to political conceptions of scale. The project finds that mysticism, the perennial aspects of spirituality that aims for union with a higher being, is an unavoidable and essential part of understanding scale since scalar terminologies tend to arise from mystical experience and encountering scale tends to generate decidedly mystical questions. Looking at mysticism in relation to science permits a fresh exploration of why science finds itself struggling with mystical concepts, such as wholeness, vastness, transcendence, hierarchy, or infinity, which are particularly notable within astronomy and ecology. Likewise, looking at how science develops and systematizes scalar descriptions permits a reworking of these mystical concepts in a manner that retains a clearer reference to empirical practices, while not remaining strictly within a material conception of the cosmos.

Joshua DiCaglio, “On Being Scaled: Rhetorical Practices of the Cosmos.” Dissertation, English Department, Pennsylvania State University, 2016. Abstract.

This point of bewilderment…

The disorientation provided by scale and the fact that it relates to a transformation of ourselves means that it launches us necessarily into territory that is less comfortably scientific. This point of bewilderment is where those invested in scientific discourse tend to retreat back to the concrete productions of scientific study. We consider the cellular diagram rather than that my body is made up of cells; we return to studying images of stars and avoid contemplating our relationship to these vast distances; we reinscribe quantum fields as particles rather than consider the interpretive implications of quantum uncertainty. Again and again, the products of scale tempt us to retreat in this way, in part, because to do otherwise just seems too mystical. …But what if scale is mystical? The problem is that we don’t understand why it’s mystical or what this mean. …

… mysticism describes a particular experience, particular practices designed around that experience, and a particular configuration toward reality that arises from and works out a scalar perspective. When scientists take the time to dwell on the larger implications and effects of scale, they find themselves entering the discursive realm of mysticism. In turn, those who have mystical experiences often find that the scalar descriptions of science provide a language that fits their experience. What if, to fully orient ourselves to scale, we have to set aside this repeated dismissal of mysticism? I will show how scale brings some surprising clarity to what mystics have always been going on about and, in turn, that mysticism helps clarify essential difficulties presented by scale.

To this end, mysticism can be defined in scalar terms as that branch of inquiry that aims to induce and integrate encounters with nonhuman scales, particularly the cosmic scale. Mysticism arises in the experience of an existence larger than oneself, in the experience of experience exceeding itself. This glimpse of a vaster totality beyond human bounds reorients the “individual” outside of the typical scale of the human being. This person must then try to make sense of, describe, and develop this new orientation. …

…Scale is not the exclusive purview of science or the technologies that produce any scalar observations. Rather, these modes of inquiry and extensions of observation (e.g., in microscopes, telescopes, and the many more complicated apparatuses) examine basic aspects of experience…

Joshua DiCaglio, Scale Theory: A Nondisciplinary Inquiry. U of Minnesota Press, 2021.

How to teach

Moshe Feldenkrais
Moshe Feldenkrais

When I think of the great teachers I have known, I see this is how they taught:

Imagine a dancing party attended by a man who never dances,
for reasons best known to himself. He always declines all
invitations to participate saying that he does not know how.
One woman, however, likes the man sufficiently to persuade
him to take the floor. Moving herself, she somehow manages
to make him move too. The dance is not very complicated, and
after a few awkward moments when his ear tells him that the
music has something to do with it, he becomes conscious that
her movements are rhythmical. Nevertheless, he is relieved
when the dance stops and he can return to his seat and
breathe again. At the end of the evening he finds he can follow
her movements and steps more easily, and can even avoid
bumping into her feet. Half thinking, he feels that perhaps he
has not performed so badly, although he knows that he still
cannot dance.

After going to a second party, he makes sufficient progress
to shake his conviction that dancing is not for him. At the next
party, finding a woman left sitting alone like himself, he asks
her to dance, still protesting that he is not very good. Ever
since then he has danced, forgetting to begin with an apology.

Consider the woman who could dance, and how she made a
pupil or client dance also, without teaching musical rhythms,
dancing steps, and all the rest of it. Her friendly attitude and
her experience made him learn without any formal teaching.
A certain kind of knowledge can pass from one person to
another without a healing touch. However, the man must
have learned to use his legs, hands, and the rest of him before
a friendly touch could help him to use his experience and learn
to dance so easily. He learned notwithstanding his ignorance
of his latent ability.

— Moshe Feldenkrais. The Elusive Obvious or Basic Feldenkrais. Cupertino, Calif: Meta Publications, 1981, p. 8.

Thanks to Tres Hofmeister for leading me to Feldenkrais.

Should a young scholar with an interdisciplinary bent go into a standard grad program to attain full proficiency in a single discipline first?

Is interdisciplinarity a skill in itself?

Enjoyed a conversation yesterday with my long-time friend Yaakov Garb, who does interdisciplinary research at Ben Gurion University in the Negev. He does great research, I think, integrating multiple frameworks and perspectives to address complex situations, ranging from Eastern Europe urban sprawl issues to green building standards and sustainable organic farming in Bedouin villages. He and I have been able to attain pretty good, but not excellent proficiency in the variety of fields required to understand such topics. Yaakov commented he can see ways his incomplete proficiency has limited his work.

So, we discussed, what advice do we give a young person who wants to engage complex issues? Better to go into an interdisciplinary grad program, gain experience working with that complexity, and attain maybe a 60% expertise level in multiple subjects? Or first put the years into a standard, single-discipline program to get full professional skills there?

I’m not sure of the answer (probably depends on the individual student and the specific academic program), but reflecting on that conversation, it seems to me that the ability to do interdisciplinary work requires skills equivalent to what’s required for expertise in a discipline. These include ability to see & understand context and ability to work back and forth between multiple frames, seeing analogies, overlaps, differences and implications.

Given the time and effort required, it’s difficult if not impossible for a single person to attain highest proficiency in both interdisciplinary skills and in a discipline. Also, some people are genetically predisposed to be proficient in contextual thinking/multiple frames. So, encourage the abductive thinker to go the interdisciplinary path? –while also emphasizing respect for disciplinary expertise, the need to consult with those experts, the importance of getting to that 60% level which enables conversation with them, and the interpersonal skills for engaging in that conversation.

Chaisson Relational Thinking Styles coverThe wife of my friend Hal here in PT, Phyllis Chiasson, an expert in thinking styles, reports that it’s about 1 in 20 people who genetically are abductive thinkers. (See her Relational Thinking Styles and Natural Intelligence.)

On the value of getting multiple diverse learning experiences, rather than a single one in greater depth, there’s Einstein’s story: Failing to get an academic physics position, he worked in the patent office, reviewing ideas for synchronizing railroad clocks. That put him in position to apply the railroad  line & clock model to the physics situation, helping enable the theory of relativity. But his math skills were only good, not great, so sometimes he had to get help from more narrow thinkers with full expertise in math.

In most institutional settings, the abductive thinker’s role wlll be unusual, difficult, and perhaps uncomfortable, because it is intrinsically (and necessarily: imagine a society of just abductive thinkers!) a minority position and challenging to the status quo. There will be the temptation to conform. But the role is probably necessary for essential functional creativity in human communities. In our Saturday morning discussions here with Hal, Dr. Kimber Rotchford, et al., we’ve talked about how that 1/20 proportion of abductive thinkers in the population probably evolved as optimal for both maintaining ongoing stable function and generating sufficient innovation.

Earlham’s core principles of wilderness education: Living in a “positive state of non-expectancy”

Strikingly similar to the values of the Wrangell Mountains Center —

Core principles guiding the Earlham College wilderness program educational mission:

  • The Adventuresome Spirit
    Viewing obstacles as challenges to be overcome. Actively seeking out opportunities to learn and to push oneself outside the “comfort zone.” Living life in a “positive state of non-expectancy” — allowing for appreciation of the trail magic that can come from being present and aware of the adventuresome potential of each moment.
  • Sense of Place
    A connection to the land we are traveling through such that we are not just tourists or passersby but, rather, we become changed by our relationship with the land and its stories. As modern life increasingly separates us from such relationships, the principle of gaining a “sense of place” on wilderness trips reminds us that this value is critical toward the creation of a personal and a larger community-based environmental ethic.
  • Servant Leadership
    Servant leadership is defined as the ability to think of others through the acquired skills of listening, observation, awareness, empathy, acceptance and foresight. It is the difference between caring “about” something or someone and “caring for” it. It is an active behavior that happens in lots of little ways. A servant leader constantly thinks about how to help his or her group in small and big ways. A servant leader is also aware of “giving back” in small and big ways to the people and the places he or she experiences. Finally, a servant leader understands that knowledge and experiences acquired have moral consequences and leaves changed as well as committed to working toward putting that change into service.
  • The Contemplative Spirit
    Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound and one of the central figures in the field of outdoor and experiential education created the 7 Laws of Salem which were his goals for operating his first school in England. One of his 7 laws was to “provide periods of silence, following the great precedent of the Quakers. Unless the present day generation acquires early habits of quiet and reflection, it will be speedily and prematurely used up by the nerve-exhausting and distracting civilization of today.” Hahn wrote that in the 1920’s. The art of contemplation and reflection is what brings meaning to our lives. It is also fundamental to the kind of deep and rigorous observation and scholarship we value at Earlham. On course, there will be many opportunities to practice the contemplative spirit.There will be “small” moments, for example, it is common to begin major meals with a moment of silence. There will also be “larger” ones like silent paddles and hikes, reflective solo’s, and observation activities.
  • Simplicity
    Simplicity and simple living is comprised of two parts: inward simplicity and outward simplicity. The two are, of course, connected. Inward simplicity can be defined by the priorities and goals that you have in your life and how you make decisions about them. Outward simplicity is how you manifest those priorities and goals to the world. Wilderness courses are all about simple living- both inwardly and outwardly. You carry everything you need on your back or in your canoe. You eat simply but heartily. You will have a minimum of possessions and “modern” distractions. This outward simplicity, we hope, will encourage inward simplicity- allowing you to reflect on what is truly important to you and how you want to go about “walking joyfully on this earth” as George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends” once famously said.

Core of economics is inquiry into the nature of wanting

Economics is often defined as the study of the allocation of scarce resources. But “scarcity” doesn’t simply exist: it is produced by the interaction of our wanting and what exists or is produced, viz. the interaction of demand and supply. Hence, the fundamental economic problem is the management of the tension between what is produced and our desiring, our wanting. At the core of the study of economics and the systems that arise from it is an inquiry into the nature of our wanting.

Graphic display of complex information: A challenge for both the strategic advocacy and natural history projects

For his Vanderbilt Law School class on advocacy strategies, Roger Conner is having his students work on an event timeline describing the history of Tennessee’s state level health care reform effort, TennCare. It’s complicated. Following Kingdon, Roger segregates events into policy, political and problem streams. The problem stream has many numbers in various categories: how many people enrolled, annual costs, and the like. In the system Roger and I are developing to help advocates understand the situations they’re in, such a complicated story becomes the basis for further analysis using Elinor Ostrom, et al.’s IAD framework, which is complex in itself. For most people, it takes quite a bit of study of explanatory text to understand the basic IAD framework graphic:

Basic Components of the IAD Framework

Activists working in the real world need to apply these concepts and relationships, and more, quickly and effectively. That means it must appear clear and straightforward to them. Figuring out how to teach this system and to provide the tools to use it is a big task for us.

Turns out that common elements in both our strategic advocacy project and my work in the Wrangell-St. Elias natural history project are timelines like this, that tell a complex history with multiple, interacting event streams. And in each, there’s the need to zoom in on details of shorter intervals within a long timespan. Conveying this information is a central challenge for my work overall, and I think for teaching and writing in both areas. This shared attribute of the advocacy and natural history projects is one indication of their similarity, too. The goal is clarity of vision in complex circumstances. Achieving that has moral, aesthetic and political and personal consequences.

Tufte Beautiful Evidence

Yaakov Garb and I talk about the “Van Andel” factor of any piece of written work. Tjeerd H. van Andel’s New Views on an Old Planet has long set the standard for us in clarity of presentation, both text and simple graphics. More recently, I’m appreciating Edward Tufte‘s masterful teachings on using layout and graphics to convey complex data. Yesterday, I enjoyed his Beautiful Evidence, which models great visual design as well as describing it. National Geographic’s large-format graphic displays, which it folds into its magazine, are another outstanding model.

I think it’ll be worth considerable effort to apply these models to explaining our strategic advocacy framework and to presenting the geological-ecological evolution of the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. For the Wrangells, I see working on getting the essence into a single large-format sheet, à la National Geographic. Perhaps the same could be the goal for the strategic advocacy framework. Whether or not the required combination of density and clarity of ideas is achievable in this form, its pursuit could help gain clarity of vision, which can also be pursued in other ways.

Insights from geology on incomplete information, uncertainty, and problem solving

Came across the following in the new issue of the Geological Society of America journal for members. A basic notion is that frequently a set of facts we know, or can know, are open to multiple interpretations, any or all of which might be true. When we come at a situation from multiple perspectives, each with its own set of facts, these taken together may set constraints that specify one true interpretation. The GSA article describes how that’s frequently the case in geology, And it goes further regarding uncertainty and incomplete knowledge in general. Seems that the following applies not only to geology and science, but should be included in the book and educational curriculum Roger Conner and I are writing on strategic policy advocacy:

Saltus, Richard W., and Richard J. Blakely. “Unique geologic insights from ‘non-unique’ gravity and magnetic interpretation.” GSA Today 21, no. 12 (December 2011): 4-10.

… Many of the greatest scientific challenges of today span the traditional subdivisions of science. Climate change research, for example, spans Earth, atmospheric,  and biological sciences and requires the combination of results from physics, chemistry, biology, geology, engineering, sociology, and economics. A key component to successful integrated science is the effective communication and mutual understanding of uncertainties arising in all of the component studies that feed into the ultimate integrated solution. But, it is also important to realize that the ultimate significance of a given result is not necessarily related to the relative certainty of that result. A partial solution or constraint to a fundamental problem may have greater significance than an exact solution to a trivial problem. And an effective integrated solution may encompass a wide range of uncertainties in the component results. To paraphrase Aristotle: The whole (integrated interpretation) is greater than the sum of its parts (methods and assumptions). And, we might add, the individual parts do not necessarily contribute equally to the sum. …