going beyond the outer boundary of a good idea

When I was an undergraduate, oh more years ago than I care to think about, I was for a too short a time a member of the Demosthenian Literary Society at the University of Georgia.  At that time, we had a faculty advisor, a member of staff whose role was to provide inspiration and guidance of a sort.  And he regularly said something that’s stuck with me ever since those bygone days.

He would often speak towards the end of a debate, as I remember things, saying that we had made good points but that we hadn’t gone far enough.  And often we hadn’t.  Casting my mind back, we would focus on the details in our back and forth, but we would allow ourselves to be constrained and restrained by what we were given.

Nowadays, in my own teaching, I find myself coming up against the same thing in my students.  They, like me back in the day, focus on the specific question and don’t allow themselves the freedom to push out and explore the question from outside the box.  And so I try to inculcate this same willingness in my students, to try and look at questions from a different perspective.

And it’s hard.  It took some time for me to develop the confidence to allow myself the freedom to cast myself adrift a bit, to wander beyond the safe boundary of a question, though I always had that voice in the back of my mind, reminding me that I hadn’t gone far enough.  And I think it’s hard for my students, because of the pressures they’re under, for their time and attention and my class being just one of several.

This pushing beyond the safe boundary of a question does not come naturally to most of us.  It’s something we need to work on and something we need to practice, even if the relatively safe confines of a pure mathematics class.  But we persist.

Why is this important?  What bother writing it down at all?  I spent the weekend at Mozfest, the annual festival run by the Mozilla Foundation, and I spent the weekend beyond the safe boundaries of most of what I know.  It was invigorating and refreshing and it’s going to take me some time to make sense of what it all means.

I was particularly taken with the talk by Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, using open source data to allow citizens to investigate the news.   All they do is to push beyond the safe boundaries of questions and the things we’re told are true, working to discover what’s actually true.   In fact, one of the themes of the weekend was data, what data we give away, what data about us others have, and what we can do with enough data.

I am beginning to believe, as many others have said, that we are creating and entering a remarkable phase of human history.  We not only have vast quantities of data about us and about the world around us, but we also now have the tools and the technology to meaningfully analyze that data and extract proper information from it.   And we need to be careful about this world we’re creating, because we have no precedent for it.  As I suspect is always the case with the future.

~ by Jim Anderson on 30 October 2016.

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