Academic Technology

When computer’s arrived at the college where I was teaching, the typists were supposed to type on the computer and print onto forms. But the people designing the forms had no concept of how the printers printed—the spacing was wrong and the text was never aligned.

Typists had to type the body of the document in the computer, print it on the form, then put it in the typewriter to fill in the data at the top. This was so time consuming that it was easier to just type the whole document, ignoring the computer. The Academic VP who commanded the design of academic forms, had no understanding of typing or printing and her Assistant VP had no understanding of filling out forms so nothing happened, neither believing it was a problem. This situation went on for years, more than doubling the requirement for clerical staff.

The faculty were then given computers and expected to “keyboard” their own student evaluations but none of them had typewriters. They would do the body of the document, put it on a disk, and take it to a typist to print out and type in the top. This resulted in much confusion about which body went with which top. The typists decided to do themselves again. The faculty used their computers for their personal work and hand wrote student evaluations. This went on for years.

Then the acquisitions department in a rented warehouse on the other side of town, with no contact with academic staff and little with administrative staff, decided it was time to stop buying or repairing typewriters. Computers were cheaper and more efficient. Each department would be allowed to have one for extreme situations where one was required.

As the typewriters began to break down and the academic paper work to pile up, the problem was finally addressed, with the refusal to repair office equipment clearly in charge of the academic process.

A version of this post was written in response to a discussion on the Systems Thinking Forum at Linked-In on personal Aha! moments, 10 July 2010.

Learning to Draw & System Dynamics

Some students need an intuitive sense of the whole before they can focus on details. Others need the details in order to understand the whole. Something that is known and tested by those who study personality and learning styles.

There are two ways that figure drawing has been taught, for example. One stresses gesture drawing, observation, and feeling the figure you see in your body. You draw standing up with a freely moving arm or sit on a drawing bench with the drawing pad propped up in front of you so you can move freely. Poised for action. You draw a line, erase, draw again. It’s an active process, full of energy and alertness, full body alertness. Very romantic. Tortured or ecstatic, but the ideal is to experience the essence of the unique event.

The traditional way, the classical method, focuses on the rules of the ideal figure, often taught using plaster casts which are more available than ideal living bodies. Students must learn the perfect proportions like the length of the nose in relation to the ears, the size of the forearm in relation to the hand, usually before being allowed to work from real bodies. First you learn these measurements as ideals, then you modify them based on the unique characteristics of your subject. The emphasis is on careful pencil drawings and techniques  like using the pencil to measure the distance between the nose and the upper lip, for example. This is often what you see in films where the artist is holding up a brush handle or a pencil like a ruler. The distance between the nose and the upper lip, for example, is thought my some to be the most significant measurement to capture a likeness. Get that right and you can hardly go wrong. This method typically idealizes the human body in its perfect form.

The interesting thing for me is that I was taught as a student in the 1960s that the first way, the Romantic ideal, using gesture and feeling, was the only honest method to use. Honesty, directness, earthy, gut understanding were important aims. When I began teaching I discovered that some students couldn’t learn that way. They couldn’t understand the exercises. They don’t know what to observe or to feel, and have no sense of using charcoal or paint freely. An agonized line. Or drawing standing up.

My students were doing independent study, not doing their drawings right in front of me, so I had two textbooks that I assigned that included a full course of drawing exercises and projects—one based on romantic gestural drawing and one based on classical ideal drawing. If a student didn’t understand one, they loved the other.

Then I discovered a third group of students. The romantic gestural drawings and the classical ideal drawings are both within the European tradition of creating three dimensional illusions. The flat two dimensional drawings usually referred to as primitive are outside this tradition, interested in neither the romantic angst nor the classical ideal. Two students, for example, from South America were literally unable to draw three dimensional illusions. One insisted on trying and it took her 6 months to finish a 10″ by 12″ still life. She said it was the hardest thing she had ever done and she would never do it again. She was highly educated and been exhibiting her art work for many years. The second struggled with both text books and could produce nothing that even resemble in intention or appearance any of the exercises. Both of us were frustrated because this was her last 3 credits before graduation. She didn’t speak English well and it was hard for me to communicate about a subject she had no vocabulary for. Finally, one day she came in with a large roll of drawing paper, pages from a large newsprint pad. They were beautiful exuberant panoramas of her island—all of it—in great detail. Flat designs that communicated as well as words what each figure was doing and where they were in relation to the mountains, oceans, trees, etc. The primitive style is conceptual, not visual. It is a representation of what one knows to be true, neither romantic nor classical nor illusionist.

Until I recognized these three styles of approaching drawing and seeing space, I thought some students were just unable to draw.

In the specialized, highly selective, professional schools I had attended only one style was considered to be the only right way by that school so only one kind of student is admitted. No one in any art school or class I ever attended taught classical drawing. It was rejected as the academy of the 19th century, wiped out by the Impressionists. But the people who saw the world in classical terms were still out there, just not in my art school. After learning that romantic gestural drawing was the only real kind of drawing, I ended up teaching in a liberal arts and sciences college for adults so my students had already well developed perceptual styles and experience. They were formed.

That’s what I fear might be happening in other fields like systems thinking and system dynamics , where the only methods of analysis are based on mathematical modeling, one approach is emphasized to the exclusion of others. This limits both the thinking in the field and the ability of non-mathematicians to benefit from these ideas.

Original posted on the MIT System Dynamics in K-12 discussion list in the context of how system modeling is taught and understood. Updated 18 October 2010.