more confused

I gave a talk yesterday up north, across state boundaries and everything.  In the process I got to visit a bunch of labs and talk to people about getting a group of teachers to visit this summer. That was all good.

And the talk went well, too.  Lots of graduate students there (in physics, health physics), a few undergrads and faculty.  In the two hour drives each way, I had a few reflections about how it all went.
1. They paused at first after the talk, but then asked a lot of questions.  My talk was on how “learning” is both determined by our definition of it (from the perspective of a physicist, a cognitive psychologist, and anthropologist, etc.) and by the goals that we explicitly show our students.  I didn’t go into too much depth about anything, but gave them examples of these kinds of things from my own work and that of others.  The most definitive thing I stated, at the very beginning, was that I was going to present nothing useful in terms of teaching method.  So, my first question at the end of the talk was from a thoughtful faculty member who wondered, “How do you [anyone] teach vectors?”  I told him I had no idea . . . but then went on to tell him what I thought about students’ views of learning.  
2. The talk itself, which I’m basically repeating tomorrow and again later this semester, contrasts different perspectives of what a “concept” is, or at least how such things might be constructed.  I caught myself on this while driving to the talk, and realized that not only do we not have this figured out, but it seems that some of our constructs (e.g., diSessa’s p-prims) are similar to other constructs (e.g., Sabella, Hammer, Redish’s “resources”) and, while they do refer to one another, they seem little motivated to reduce things to a single term/construct. This is a problem in addition to competing ideas of more systematic and structured organizations such as theoretical frameworks (Vosniadou) and ontological (Chi) organizations. And I just now got to the section of a chapter where diSessa describes coordination classes.
This all makes me feel like I’m just very behind on reading.  Every talk I ever give seems to have a question and answer session filled with “has there been research to show . . . ?” and “how do we teach ____?”  And I have only the vaguest of answers.  I can’t help but wonder if I need to simply bone up on everything (from, it seems, 3 different fields: physics, cognitive science, and science ed) and/or if the kinds of questions I get are fundamentally different from those at other talks (in physics seminars).  In a typical seminar, a question could be more likely to be methodological or detailed about a particular piece of known phenomena; in the talks I give, I feel like there are no answers to methodological and pedagogy related questions.  I often (as I did yesterday) excuse myself by simply citing the title of AAAS’s “Project 2061,” explaining that this is hard, and that’s why the due date is so far off.
So, in spite of the fact that this sabbatical is supposed to be for writing, I again feel that I need to do more reading.  The problem is that where I need to be doing reading is pretty broad.  I think I find myself swaying between two areas, the researcher and the new venturer (books, summer programs, etc.) and they could easily interfere.
Less related, I finished a light reading book last night (Bellwether, Connie Willis) in which a sociologist is frustrated with the lack of causality to be found when so many variables exist.  (It all works out — she’s guided by some sheep and falls in love, though not with the sheep.)  It sounded familiar.  Last night I picked up some Terry Tempest Williams and enjoyed this quote:

For me, the answer [to how to create reform; in this case in the context of conservation of wilderness in Southern Utah] has always been through story. Story bypasses rhetoric and pierces the heart. Story offers a wash of images and emotion that returns us to our highest and deepest selves, where we remember what it means to be human, living in place with our neighbors. (from Red: Passion and patience in the desert, p. 3)

I think this made me remember what I like about writing (especially when certain academic constraints are loosened), and it makes me wonder what the role of story versus research might have in any context. Few do well at doing both at the same time, which the exception of a few (e.g., John McPhee). I think that would be a good thing to aspire towards.


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