With a lost friend.
This column was written with Frederico (Fred) Cheever, who died in 2017. In a moment, I will tell you how that could be, but first I would like to tell you about my friend.
Fred was a dedicated environmental lawyer and teacher, who died too young doing something he loved: river rafting on the Green River in Northwest Colorado with his family. It was a tragedy, but one of those tragedies that is multi-layered, like the geological strata of the surrounding Rocky Mountains. He death was, of course, an incalculable loss for his family, his wife and two beautiful children, whom he adored.
A terrible loss also for his many colleagues, both at the law school and not, who admired him and his work at the University level over his more than two decades of service to the University. Fred was the kind of selfless giver of his time to University initiatives that he was, at times, taken advantage of, about which he complained not (at least not to me).
It was a terrible loss to the community of environmental scholars, of whom he was a leader, mentor, and guide. And a terrible loss to his future students, who will not have the benefit of his special admixture of deep knowledge, skilled teaching, and warm affection which he freely offered to all of the several thousand students he touched during his time at Denver Law.
In the years before his death, Fred and I would meet for a beer at the end of the day around once per week. During those talks, he would encourage me in my thinking, and prod me to write my next book about the intersection of technology and teaching.
On several of those beer-fueled conversations, I brought a small notebook to take notes. What we started doing was to have a verbal conversation and one in writing as well, passing the notebook back and forth between us. A few days ago, I found one of those notebooks, which I had not seen since I put it away after the conversation that took place on September 10, 2015. It contains some of my earliest thinking on the hybrid balance between analog and digital teaching methods. In the last year, I have often thought I would love to have Fred as a subscriber to this newsletter, but instead, I will open that little notebook, and we will co-write this issue together:
Fred: Our reliance on digital technology does not eliminate analog technology. Rather it transforms it - endowing it with new meaning.
David: And, it adds to it. Technology is mostly additive. It is perceived as a killer of the old order, when most evidence is to the contrary.
F: In the mosaic of analog and digital technology we create with every action, one possible governing principle is that digital should do what digital does well and analog should do what analog does well.
D: Exactly. The Future is Hybrid. The interesting conversations are going to be about what relative percentages/technologies in different areas and subjects are most appropriate and successful. Most interesting, most important, and most fun.
F: But digital technologies deprive us of freedom - often the freedom to make mistakes. They speak to primarily one sense - vision. Even ink has a smell, and writing suggests endless graphic possibilities.
D: Yes. And yet, what we see in “the window”1 can be so vast and yet so limited. We have had advanced video “meeting” technology for years. Why do we still get on airplanes, with that immense carbon footprint and cost?
F: The airplane question is very important. Clearly there is something about proximity we cannot yet (?) replicate digitally. It may be impossible to replicate. We evolved in an entirely analog world. We are not digital beings.
D: The question of art is also important and illuminating of the contradictions we are discussing. For example, what about “ephemeral” art2 that exists for a time and then disappears? The only way to capture it is digital.
F: I think we can agree that one of the strengths of analog technology is the ephemeral. Analog is full of this remembered but lost. Digital is not. Snapchat is a contrived digital ephemera.
D: And yet… digital is lost too. Are we fooling ourselves about this? Remember VHS? Or Laserdisc? The archivist staff at the Library of Congress - they lose sleep over this every night.
F: Good point. Digital and analog technology have entirely different archival realities - they are each sturdy in different ways. Vulnerable in different ways. Does our ability to store, retrieve, and lose information shape our reality in fundamental ways?
D: Yes. And so we are back to Hybrid. The right mix. How do we find it? How do we articulate it? How do we implement it? How do we adjust/tweak it as we grow into this immensely interesting conversation? Some of these conversations are starting, all over the world. Often facilitated in a way that only tech could have - ever has - facilitated. Tapping into that, and writing about it, teeing it up (so to speak), putting a spotlight on these corners of education - would be immense fun. And might even be a contribution.
F: But there is no digital beer.
D: Truth! ;-)
Letters of Recommendation
This week, I offer a recommendation of a documentary about the artist Andy Goldsworthy, who is mentioned in a footnote below. It is called Rivers and Tides, and depicts Andy creating ephemeral sculptures in driftwood, rocks, flowers, and icicles. A beautiful meditation on the balance between analog and digital, in the art world.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from William Arthur Ward:
Teaching is more than imparting knowledge; it is inspiring change. Learning is more than more than absorbing facts, it is acquiring understanding.
I meant the computer screen here.