Monday 20 April 2015

The Powerful Conversation of Supervision

I had a great supervision today with a PhD student who is researching home-studio music composition/production. This is a difficult topic (PhDs are not meant to be easy!), because it opens onto a rich territory of largely phenomenological inquiry about the creative process generally, and the musical creative process in particular and the relationship with technology. My own experience of technology in music making (albeit a very different genre) is that technology very often gets in the way: the functionalist determination of pressing buttons, clicking menus and so on somehow obscures what matters in the creative process (I have another PhD student who is looking at precisely this aspect of creativity and the way that artists are exploring ways of subverting the functionalism of technology). Indeed, the functionalist determination of technological usage generally obscures what matters: technology is behind the cancer of functionalism and its related managerialism in institutions and governments.

My student is very bright, reads a lot, thinks even more and listens to music all the time: he is full of ideas. But he complains of a kind of 'stagnation': a feeling of being overwhelmed by the complexity of his thoughts. I know a few PhD supervisors who don't think about things very deeply, but who basically steer students through the 'game' of the PhD: this approach seeks to attenuate complex thought and channel productivity in a narrow functional way. I've always objected to this: I was (and am still) like my PhD student: full of rich and complex ideas. I was lucky to supervised at the University of Bolton by somebody who was equally complex: there was no need to attenuate anything - the conversations were fertile, encouraging, and I simply started to write (most importantly on this blog!). I dread to think what would have happened to me at a lesser University!

There's a cybernetic law for what I am describing: it's called Ashby's law of Requisite Variety. Basically, Ross Ashby realised that a complex system can only be controlled by a system of equal or greater complexity. He built a machine called the 'homeostat' to prove it. Education, unfortunately, is very good at attenuating complexity through force of power ("don't think about it, just do what you're told!") - but this is oppressive: it produces what Heinz von Foerster calls a 'trivial machine'.

In a recent discussion with Loet Leydesdorff, we talked about stagnation. Loet is interested in stagnation in the economy. He argues that moments of stagnation are the most important for growth because it is where the most 'redundant' ideas are produced - that is what might be termed 'hidden options' for development. We discussed the importance of Universities in producing 'hidden options': universities are society's generators of redundancy (that phrase has a peculiar ring to me at the moment!!). But there is an obvious problem: there is plenty of economic stagnation at the moment, whilst the approach of government is to remove redundancy in favour of efficiency. That is, the very source of economic growth - hidden options - are suppressed with an increasingly functionalist programme of bureaucratising society such that the function of every individual is determined in terms of the demands of every other individual, with nothing to waste.

The irony is that the generators of redundancy - the Universities - are suffering precisely this fate. Education is being functionalised; there is simply no space to think, and there are no jobs for thinkers.

Stagnation is important because it is something that builds up over time and seeks some kind of release. How can a surfeit of complex ideas release itself? By Ashby's Law, it must find another surfeit of complex ideas! In a University, this shouldn't be difficult. But of course, if Universities remove their thinkers, and they create timetables where every moment of the day is spoken for in terms of functional delivery, and they exhaust people with bureaucracy, then it can be difficult to make connections. Worse still is that, like bad supervisors, they will instil a mentality which seeks to attenuate (or oppress) complexity of thought. The result will be sickness.

It's nice that my PhD student expressed his relief in talking to me, and we made great progress (thanks to Alfred Schutz - once again, thanks to Loet for that!) But this has made me think about the "relief" and the power of our conversation. As educators, we believe we can change peoples' lives by talking to them. This isn't an unfounded belief: we know it to be true given the right circumstances. Universities ought to provide the right circumstances! But what's in a powerful conversation?

I think it is in this business of a matching complexity of ideas. I find myself asking difficult questions: "What do you mean by 'ownership'? What do you mean by culture?". These expose the variety and complexity of thinking. Some of this complexity I recognise because I've been there myself. I also can make suggestions about what to do because I dealt with it myself (not to say my solution was the best or only one!), but at least I have my own map. And with my map, I also have some resources: theories, arguments, books to read, pieces of music, Schutz, etc.

All of this makes me think about Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. I've never been entirely comfortable with it because it's rather woolly, coming very late in his short career. However, there may be a more technical way of expressing it in terms of interacting redundancies (I'm exploring this at the moment). Part of it though is what I learnt from my music professor Ian Kemp: you know you are teaching well when you learn more from your students than they do from you!


Scott said...

The ZPD feels like a concept that needs a model; his earlier work was very structured and precise by contrast.

ZPD feels intuitively "right" but would be much more useful if we had a model of the information and communications for it - what exactly do you do to utilise the ZPD? And how do you know if your structures aren't optimal regarding ZPD?

Mark Johnson said...

Redundancy could provide the model.

Jerry Fodor was very critical of the work on thought and language (not online unfortunately). Basically problem with the cncept of information and his concept of concepts. There's a response by Leontief here

fascinating stuff!