Metaphor, some personal history

When I was a senior school student of English Literature (circa 1961/2), one insight stood out for me – irony, in Shelley’s Ozymandias.

As far as I can remember, that was the first time my perception of learning, in Eng Lit, went beyond ‘learning the facts’.

Yes, I had learnt that ‘metaphor’ is a form of speech, and is when one thing is claimed to be another, as in ‘The moon was a ghostly galleon …’; compared with simile which used ‘as’ or ‘like’ to preface the claim.

I have met up again with ‘metaphor’, and now much later.  Jack Mezirow speaks of metaphor being an indicator of the kind of reflective work/thinking that conveys the potential to move a person’s meaning perspective (what he calls ‘transformative’), or provides evidence of such a shift (p.219).

I have been used to the idea of ‘analogy’ and that kind of thinking being helpful for creative theorising since reading of Kekule’s snake, and the benzene ring (probably Asimov, probably about 1960).

Now I am understanding metaphor, and that kind of thinking, to be related to abduction, as distinct from deduction and induction.

The process of comparison, so vital to ‘research’ and working with ‘findings’, to manage lots of data, is part of this older understanding of how an educated person can use language, and so and more ‘creatively’.

In my thesis (1999-2005) I worked some more with Gregory Bateson’s idea of the meta- … meta-cognition, meta-communication, the second-level process of thinking about thinking, communicating about communication etc.

So what is the meta-4? (as per punning) … to help us think and to communicate our thinking …

How important is it? It seems to me that irony, paradox, truth hidden in the meaning of words, is something that will be with me all my life.  Whether  I can make something more of this understanding is another matter; let alone considering how I make something more of this …

Brainstorming, Chunking, Clustering and Clouds

One of the tools of creative problem solving, useful in group work, including in dispute resolution, involves brainstorming – gathering, unevaluated, ideas associated with the presenting problem, from a group of people.  One of the processes of such braintorming is the stimulation of associated words and ideas gathered into such words.  Brainstorming is a bit like de Bono’s green hat work, with a dash of yellow hat work.

One of Lewin‘s key suggestions for analysis of non-trivial amounts of ethnographic description required for the kind of qualitative research that is involved in observing and understanding social situations, is something akin to  ‘chunking‘: bringing together, under a single term, a constellation of factors, eg ‘gatekeeper’ for the kinds of activities a member of a community/group undertakes to manage the flow of information into and out from the community/group. It involves the development of a metaphor.(‘Topological’ mapping is another of Lewin’s suggestions.) (See Argyris, 1993 Knowledge for Action, p.8-10)

As I was considering the task of deciding categories, for a non-native English speaker, as part of the process of handling a lot of data, I noted

To what extent might recognising commonalities of categories be related to language comprehension?  To what extent is what I am doing related to my propensity for convergence by abstraction – going, I think, to a ‘broader’ level of inclusivity?   Others’ clouds and clusters work with words.

Now I find that ‘clustering’ is a technical term, with the propensity for use with computers, reminding me that when I was using NUD.IST for my data analysis, I was amused to find this qualitative analysis tool reporting results in a numeric form, as if recurrence was most significant.

In reading someone else’s writing for understanding, for meaning-making there are two sets of understandings and associations of words in play: the reader’s set, and the writer’s set.  No wonder miscommunication happens.

In thesis work, when clarity of communication is so vital, no wonder time and precious words are spent on working with some key definitions.

Big Picture Thinking

One of my ponderings, as I have worked with non-native English speaking thesis drafters, relates to the extent that vocabulary limits/determines the categories available for the more general abstractions.

In Whetten & Cameron’s Developing Management Skills, (p.64, 4th ed) the aspect of ‘cognitive complexity’, together with greater capacity for tolerating ambiguity, is raised.  ‘Individuals with a high tolerance of ambiguity also tend to be more cognitively complex’.  The point is made that individuals with greater cognitive complexity tend to have more ‘sense making categories’ than those with a low cognitive complexity.  Then they go on to say:

for the most part, in an information-rich environment, tolerance of ambiguity and cognitive complexity are more adaptive than the opposite characteristics.

Donald Schon, in The Reflective Turn, (1991), p.349, talks of ‘fundamental categories’ in terms of ‘ontology’, and the nature of the underlying story that can be developed to inform a researcher, and particularly while they are observing. and indicates that the availability of a range of categories will be one aspect of developing rigor, in Popper’s terms. (The other strand of the development of rigor will lie in the research approach, and the extent to which it is open to others being involved in esting validity). Schon says:

… appropriate rigor in the study of practice will depend on the researcher’s ability to generate, compare and discriminate among multiple representations of practice phenomena – that is, to formulate alternate causal stories of the phenomenon in question and test their competitive resistance to refutation .. the ontology, or fundamental categories, of an underlying story determines the kinds of observations that must be made in order to disconfirm an explanation derived from that story.

One of the problems for a non-native English speaker, in working with qualitative findings, may then arise from their lack of vocabulary in English, or to what extent, when learning English vocabulary to translate their thinking in their native language, they permit some of the nuances of their native language to be lost in choosing a reasonably well-recognised English word.

As a native speaker, one of the significant tools to aid my drafting is a thesaurus – the collection of like but different terms, with their respective nuances.

Big picture thinking, with its convergent tendency, and creative conceptualising, tend, as I understand it to be one of the hallmarks of academic literacy.

When I take offense/challenge

In one of my challenges of another’s drafting was in a methodology chapter, when they were describing the process of thematic analysis, and said

The tentative themes were then categorized according to the research questions to reduce redundancy. This categorizing technique helped to make salient the points that the interviewees wanted to emphasize. One of the refining techniques in the process of interview analysis was comparing two interviews only to show similarities and differences between two teacher participants so that common themes and contrasts could be clearly identified.

I reacted badly to ‘This categorizing technique helped to make salient the points …’

My first reaction was ‘what does ‘salient’ mean?’ – I don’t know, without checking, what it means, how come this non-native English language speaker is using it?

Then I remembered: when I was working with my thesis drafting, and working intensively with the literature, I found my writing ‘mimicking’ the vocabulary of the writers I was reading.  At the time, I shared, with a peer, my complaint with myself over this process, with: “whose thesis/ thinking is this anyway?”

One of my key perceptions of what science teaching (to school certificate learners, undertaking compulsory studies) involved, was that one aspect of the task is to teach vocabulary (eg carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, fibre: what they are; why and how they are different; and, then, what is the value of knowing this – how does it apply to an understanding of good nutrition?).

Similarly, I am seeing thesis studies being about (a) self-directed learning; and (b) functional literacy.

Research, for a learner, is going into the unknown.  In the first instance it is an unknown to them, but may well be known by the ‘field’.  Consequently, one of the roles of the literature review is to take this novice into the field, and to find out what the field already knows about the phenomenon being explored.  Then, if the learner still has an unresolved question, the next step is to design the investigation and take themselves into that new territory, to explore it, and to come back and tell the story (write the report).

The thesis is then the evidence of managing that self-directed study, and developing the functional literacy involved in reporting findings back to the field.  Part of the functional literacy task is to learn the privileged vocabulary of the field.  Part of the functional literacy task is to learn how to be able to use that vocabulary, accurately and effectively, and to construct a report, for the field (peer review), demonstrating the achievement of certain standards of (a) data collection, (b) data analysis, (c) argument development and maintenance while retaining an appropriately open and ‘critical’ stance of one’s own work as well as the work of others.

My second reaction to ‘make salient’ was with the combination, and the ‘implicit’, for me, in the term ‘make’.  I was reading this as a forcing process and by (me as) the analyst.

So, was the combination ‘make salient’ an expression of the non-native English language writer, or was it how a writer in the field of methodology had expressed it, which this learner, like me, was finding infiltrating their own native expressions as they worked at becoming an initiate of the field?

And my reaction to ‘make salient’?… Was it my tendency to try and disown bias?  Was it me trying to give the impression of ‘objectivity’ when, in data analysis, particularly,  it is the person of the researcher who is doing the ‘making sense’ of what is there, is doing the choosing of the category tag, etc?

So now, how  do I understand the objectivity/subjectivity divide?

In research there is no capacity to separate the researcher (subject) from the research (object).  Claims that this happens/ can happen are only claims.

And, further, when I am brought up against this issue, in drafting that is dealing with Engestrom’s Activity System Model (ex Leont’ev, ex Vygotsky), [and something which is new to me], how do I now understand how the ASM is seeing subject-object and via a mediating tool like language?

Writing and context

I have been encouraged, previously, to realise that writing is a complex task, according to Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1991 (‘Literate Expertise’).

Now that I am trying to help others to write, I am also finding out a bit more about that complexity.  It has to do with the contextual nature of writing and meaning making.

Bateson, (1972/1969 ‘Double Bind’, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind), suggests that part of the capacity to be creative arises from somehow recognising cues from context .. and realising that in a certain context, something new is what is most appropriate.

It seems to me, as I try and suggest alternatives, of word choice, of sentence construction, for non-native English writers working on thesis drafting, and as I try to explain why what is written is not satisfying me, as a reader, the issue of a range of options of how else to write this, arises.

Those options need to be examined , and by using a range of evaluative criteria, in order to choose, or to design, which one, of the many ways of saying something, best serves the meaning the writer wants to convey.

No wonder, when I tried to construct a email, to share some of this, the email became more and more convoluted …

I needed to be with the writer, questioning, and finding out the meaning they intended,

I needed to help them to settle the choice on one issue before I/we could proceed to the next issue, whether it was immediately consequential, or not.

The choice of options, and all options chosen, needs to consolidate (or coalesce) around the purpose of the writing.  This is what is meant by coherence – a context in which each sentence has its own inimitable part to play.

It seems that I wasn’t far wrong, as an eight-to-nine-year-old, in reading the lot to try and find the meaning of the new word/s, rather than using a dictionary as a first resort.  I was working on understanding a new term, especially, in its context, as well as by its context.

5 Feb 2010: Now I find, from Kate Wilson’s thesis on EAP, that van Lier (2004) puts ‘context’ on the top of his list of ten principles for language learning. [No. Kate puts ‘context’ top; van Lier puts ‘relations’ top and ‘context’ second; though if we are strictly systemic, it willbe hard to order anything as top, because they are all interrelated, so that you cannot have-one-without-the-other.]

Language and creativity

Now to explain, in part, the other post.

In amongst my list of curiosities about learning is what and how we learn before we have what becomes our native language.

For me, it is logical that we do learn before we have recognisable and expressible language skills, and because we do learn that skill: the ability to communicate in our native language.

Gardner, in his preface to Frames of Mind (1983), comments:

‘Constraints research has revealed that, by the end of early childhood, youngsters have developed powerful and already entrenched theories about their immediate world: the world of physical objects and forces; the world of living entities; the world of human beings, including their minds.  Surprisingly, and in contradiction to the claims of the great developmentalist Jean Piaget (Mussen and Kessen 1983), these naive ‘conceptions’ and ‘theories’ prove difficult to alter, despite years of schooling.  And so it often happens that the ‘mind of the five-year-old’ ends up unaffected by the experiences of school. … At first blush, this diagnosis would appear to sound a death knell for formal education.  It is hard enough to teach to one intelligence; what if there are seven?  It is hard enough to teache even when anything can be taught; what to do if there are distinct limits and strong constraints on human cognition and learning? (p.xxii-xxiii)

So we learn our native language.

And, now, I am engaged in helping people work in a language which is not their native language, with writing for thesis purposes.

In the end, a thesis is an argument substantiating a claim.  The writing involves a protocol of exposing the substance of the claim: the grounds, the warrants, the backing, the qualifications and the rebuttals (as Toulmin puts it).

As I understand it, one of the protocols of western/occidental argument construction [that moves beyond ‘information’ (‘conveying the facts’) to a synthesis (that, in my case, prefers some sort of explanatory theory)] involves defining categories, and includes constructing the bounds of new categories and categories of conceptualisations, and sometimes by what is called nominalisation – making nouns out of verbs, or abstractions, or higher levels of generalisation.

That is to say, as far as I can express it, how we think, in the so-called 21st century world, has a high degree of reliance on ‘literacy’ – how we manage and extend our learning of language.

But what if this process of thinking, which privileges the ‘big picture’, is unbalanced, and to the extent that it is unbalanced, is faulty?

Do people who learn in another culture, with another kind of language, who may, by that culture and language, privilege ‘attention to detail’, and have other ways of managing detail and synthesising from it, both think differently and have other ways of problem solving, and ways which might help us deal with the complexity of the change wrought in our environment from the hegemony that has permitted virtually unrestrained exploitation of natural resources?

If so, does training them to think and express themselves, in compliance to the western/occidental mode, risk destroying that alternative?

Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences ( 2nd ed.). London: HarperCollins.

Toulmin, S., Rieke, R., & Janik, A. (1984). An Introduction to Reasoning ( 2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan.