In search of context

On PBS radio, Kevin Whitehead’s review of Jenny Scheinman’s ‘Mayhem’ included a quick comment that if one of the songs was “taken out of context” it would be heard differently.

There are wide-open moments on Scheinman’s “Devil’s Ink” that, taken out of context, could pass for modern composed music.

Which made me wonder how a piece of a song could be taken out of context? It would have to be informed by other songs or other knowledge.

Of course, an individual song can be taken out of context — bands like Pink Floyd and Radiohead didn’t want their songs to be sold separately in iTunes. Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare is meant to be heard in a certain order – so is Queen’s Night at the Opera. Album rock is based on the album, not the individual songs.

But context can be important for bits of knowledge as well. And this connects (really it does) to my students coming to class not having done their reading.

I complained about this on John Mak’s blog, in answering his query about flipping the classroom, where I described the problem in my hybrid class, where lectures and readings are online, and on-site time is for discussion:

Several students seem to “forget” to do the online work at all, having been “trained” to just show up in a class. The time in class, now joyfully turned over to “discussion”, doesn’t go as well when students don’t do the online readings.

The readings provide context for what we talk about in class. Reading about what happened (yes, including some facts) provides the context for both the primary sources and further discussion.

And yet, there is no reason for a person to realize they do not possess context for their ideas. They may think their thoughts spring from an internal source, without connection to their culture, upbringing, or surroundings. Only their presence is required to engage in criticism, on any subject.

Such disconnected idea-building could represent a moment of spirituality, but is more likely to express simple ignorance.

People who cannot think within a pattern of intellectual endeavor (mathematical, historical, literary, scientific) lack the context within which to put the bits and pieces of information they may encounter.

The Nowhere Man in Yellow Submarine knew a million details, but had no knowledge.

So the entire purpose of education is to provide context. Or, at least, it is its central purpose. Providing facts and forcing memorization, we say, doesn’t do that – you only learn the details. But could enough facts, stuck together however tenuously, create a net that becomes a context? Can we rearrange the songs to make an album?

Or is it necessary to have someone else (expert, professor, teacher, curator) create the album, so that we hear the individual tunes as a contextual package?

Perhaps the controversy between the constructivist or connectivist pedagogies and the instructivist pedagogy is mostlya bout context. The constructivists and connectivists want the students to build their own contextual package, inductively, and the instructivists want to provide the contextual package, within which students fit the specifics, deductively.

Either way, it seems to me, the goal is the same.

One thought on “In search of context

  1. This is brilliant! I especially love the music analogies! I find with beginning learners (most community college students) that some instructive portions of class are necessary. For instance I need to explain the strong blues style of a band like Led Zeppelin to the history of rock students. If they have no context for the major influence of American blues to British bands then they won’t understand the ridiculous critics’ negative reviews of the band as “too bluesy”. It is a bit like saying Jimi Hendrix was too electric guitar centered.

    One of my major issues with grad school was that our many of our courses were self driven but rarely did the professor challenge our presentations. I sat through numerous constructivist classes with my fellow colleagues presenting blatantly incorrect information with absolutely no word from the professor.

    Currently, I find that most of my constructivist elements in class must be checked often to insure accuracy, relevance and context. I feel that assisted constructivist learning works best for my subjects.


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