oCoC: Online—off-line in time of COVID-19

Set of the film “Good bye, Lenin” (Photo: DPA)
from https://www.thelocal.de/20190925/films-east-germany-legacy-east-germans-perceive-them

On the complexity of change

COVID-19: In many parts of the world, regions and institutions are in lock-down, venues of education, culture, and entertainment have been closed, people return to their homes and stay there, supermarkets have closed for a time because their shelves are empty, education administrators advocate the move from – what they call – face-to-face instruction to – what they call – virtual teaching online … I would like to talk a little about the latter two, calling them off-line and online:

This seems to be a good time to tell a story, one of my stories. So, why don’t you sit down comfortably, protect your back, don’t hunch over your reading device … this story might get a little longer. Because it is a story, I will give my best to refrain from weaving in scientific or theoretical references; I will leave the look through the theoretical lens for another time. Why can I do that? Our stories, interrelated narratives, anecdotes are not only complex in and of themselves, they are also a way to make sense of complexity (and sometimes chaos) around us or even in us.

Once upon a time in the last century, I was born in a tiny country that called herself Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Others called her East Germany or Soviet Occupation Zone. There was on-line and off-line even there and then.

Quite early on and also later, my mom would send me shopping with a list, which was off line on a small piece of paper. I would go and stand in line, ask the shop assistant for things from my list. My question never was: Could I have …? It was: Do you have …? And often the answer was: No.

My mom sent me shopping well before stuff was needed – so were many others or they went by themselves, when they were old enough. Mom seemed to know when and where yoghurt or toilet paper was in store. I would buy it then, so we had it at home when it was needed.

Signs on shelves often said: Take Only 2. And that was what I did – as did many others – I took 2, whether I had it on my list or not. It was cheap, and who knows what was to come, we might need it.

Shortages were frequent. One day, I was in a butcher’s. In stead of cold cuts and schnitzel, two small flower pots were on display. I asked whether there was anything behind the counter and was told that, no, everything was exported to make hard-currency cash for the COMECON economy. I did not buy a flower pot, because it was not for sale.

I had always thought that these were characteristics of a command economy with overwhelmed, partially educated, paranoid, underwhelming elderly men in government. The economy was not geared toward consumption; infrastructure and logistics were poorly funded and organized. Well more than 30 years later, I did not expect to see empty shelves in supermarkets …

Let’s move to the second part of my story. Let’s go online.

And then I went online. Occasionally. With the telephone. During my year abroad in Kaluga, Russia, I would go to the local post office. Waited in line. Was told to go into booth number 7. Picked up the receiver. And could talk to my mom in Germany. The line was neither stable nor clear, but we were both grateful about the marvels of technology – I was in the post office booth, she was at a neighbor’s house which actually had a landline telephone. We stayed in touch by whatever means available: telephone, letter (sometimes also given to somebody traveling back from Kaluga to East Germany), or small packages with treasured goodies, in my direction only.

In the early 1990s, I moved to England. Staying in touch with the family got easier. Phone bills were high, and connections were stable and from home to home.

And, I used Gopher and later Mosaic to go online with my office PC. The Internet had emerged, and I was showing students how to find a few German fairy tales or the odd Spiegel article (still hosted on a university main frame computer). In the computer language lab, we used a web page that I had written with a set of annotated links to all texts that I could find and that were in German, in addition to little programs stored on computer disks. Soon after, things came on CDs and had images and sound. Hypertext. The students and I still talked. A lot. We sat in front of the computer(s) and talked. We shared screens in one computer lab and talked. We put in floppy disks and talked. We all learned to type – even umlauts äöüßÄÖÜ – and talked in and about clear writing. We recorded ourselves on stand-alone PCs and listened to audio files and we talked.

In 2001, a few colleagues and I began to design an online course – one semester of learning German from scratch. And we used the telephone to exchange spoken texts and we talked. Students would pick up the phone, punch in a felt 273 different digits upon request, and speak their oral assignment into the phone. The sound file was magically streamed to the server, where I would see it seconds later, listen to it, take some notes, pick up the phone, punch in 273 digits, and record a response that was streamed to the student. I still remember the system’s name: VERA. Vera means hope and belief in a number of languages.

Since, my students and I have emailed, Skyped, built wikis, blogged, discussed and chatted by both writing and speaking, and Zoomed. And we talked both online and off-line. All the time. More than ever before.

Long story. And I have not told the half of it. But where is COVID-19? Apart from the two mentions at the very beginning? The pandemic, the precautions, and the social and individual reaction to the unfolding complex web of events have been here all along. It is the counterpoint and context to my story. And the story is the counterpoint to the complex and – at times – chaotic phenomena of the pandemic, as I am experiencing them here in Southern California, at work, and through the omnipresent media and public discourses. So, let me finish my story by talking about this week. And then I will spare you the theoretical lens. This time only; I will put it on for the next blog post.

I have watched the clip with Walter Ulbricht denying the plan to built the Berlin Wall, listened to rambling propaganda word assemblies of the East German swamp and establishment, heard Erich Honecker explain that green salad just needed to be washed and it would be radiation-free after the Chernobyl disaster, and saw and experienced empty shelves and the shortage of toilet paper in days long gone.
Until 2017, I had hoped that such ill-worded and ideologically biased government statements and speeches at such a low level were a thing of the past. Until this week, I was so sure that I would not see or stand in front of empty store and supermarket shelves, in the country where I live, again. Full disclosure: I have not been to a supermarket this week, but I could not avoid listening to friends and family who have and seeing pictures online.

Online, I have been researching and advocating the considered pedagogic use of digital technologies in education for the last thirty years. This week, it seems, everybody in education, abruptly asked to abandon their classroom, is talking about online learning, virtual teaching, blended, hybrid, asynchronous, … Why am I not relishing the moment? First, the words! A blend should only happen in a blender in the kitchen. It is bad enough, sometimes, if it is done to whisky or wine, inmho. It should not be done to people and with people, I believe. In the relevant literature, hybrid used to mean (until this week, it seems) having a course that was done partially face-to-face, partially online. How is that gonna work when all classes are moved off campus. And virtual teaching? Most professors believe they know what teaching means. Virtual means “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized.” So, I am asked to teach – virtually – and won’t be recognized for it? By whom?
For many educators who deep down have always believed that computers, digital media, and remote communication are either evil or at least vastly inferior to a close encounter, this change to education not in the classroom, lecture hall, or lab has come too sudden and was enforced from the top or forced upon them by adverse and unusual external circumstances. And I have come to believe, after being a student at the time of the Peaceful Revolution, that change better be gradual and voluntarily embraced by many to be sustainable.

Today, I am hoping that soon we are all going to come out of COVID-19 healthy, being again able to travel to different places without any fear, coming together in families, in small and large groups, and, if you enjoy that sort of thing, in huge gatherings, to have fun and a feeling of community. I am also hoping that online – teaching, learning, and talking – will finally be seen by many as what it is. Just another way of getting in touch with people, learning from one another and about one another. A way to communicate that is neither worse nor better than writing somebody a beautiful letter or chatting with somebody sitting next to them on the sofa or teaching a group in a comfortable classroom. It has always been more important to me that we talk with one another and learn from one another than through what channel and by what means we do this. It is up to us to learn how to use new(er) technologies and other means better. There is a tool for everything, but not everything is a hammer.

Especially in times of crisis or a pandemic, it is important to keep talking to one another truthfully and to keep learning.

oCoC: What is happening with COVID-19?

On the complexity of change

A colleague cancelled her trip to Italy. She knows the country well and is not afraid of going there. She is afraid of being quarantined, when coming back home to the US. The conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics with 1,400 registrants in Denver, CO, at the end of March has been cancelled “in light of developments over the last few days” (AAAL, March 9, 2020). Schools are closed in some parts of the world; universities in the US are preparing to take all their courses online until the end of the semester.

Is there a way to make sense of this change, these changes, the angst? I believe there is.

If you have read previous posts or our Team page, then you know that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in public health. I watch the international news, care about my own health and that of others, also in other parts of the world, like traveling and (international) get-togethers. And generally, I prefer when I can follow through on a planned course of action. I had planned to buy tickets for the two trips my wife and I want to take in the summer months last week. I didn’t.

How can we make some sense of this complex phenomenon? From what I have read thus far, COVID-19 has not yet been traced back to its initial conditions yet. Why would this be good to know? Generally speaking, because these variables – however minute – are there from the beginning and are often influential at all iterations through which the complex process goes. Unfortunately, misunderstanding initial conditions can lead some people to make decisions that at least appear to be unnecessary. I read recently that the sales of Corona beer are down because of the “namesake” Corona virus; apparently fewer people feel like going to a Chinese restaurant in the US because of the belief that the virus was spread from China.

Not only because I had intended to write about nonlinearity – as an important characteristic of a complex adaptive system – in this post, I will say that understanding the complex global spread of a nasty virus as a nonlinear process is of utmost importance.

Quickly in a nutshell, what does that mean for each one of us?

  • Small changes are likely to have a disproportionately large effect. Washing my hands, avoiding to touch my face, and in general being very careful with hygiene, can and will have the effect that I am better protected from catching the virus and that, if more and more people follow such guidelines (and other measures are taken in concert), the spread of COVID-19 can be contained.
  • Consider the context, learn about the many components, facets, and variables of this complex phenomenon. How is the virus spreading and impacting people in different places of this world? What can its many nonlinear trajectories tell us about its nature? From the little I understand COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and the MERS viruses. In 2003, I lived in a city close to Toronto, and Toronto was one of the metropolitan centers affected by SARS at the time. SARS had a lower spread worldwide than COVID-19 has already had until now. On the other hand, it had a higher fatality rate (of almost 10%). It passed in about six months. Even with my very limited expertise in things medical this gives me a more rational perspective. It gives me hope and it gives me compassion for other people, people with different fears, people quarantined on a large cruise ship, people with responsibility for large gatherings such as a university or an international conference.
  • Accept the complexity. This acceptance mainly leads me to NOT do something. I do not expect a linear change. Just because we do A – whatever A is – just because the government implements measure A – whatever A is – just because the WHO issues guideline A – whatever A is – I do not expect a direct – linear – outcome B. No single step, measure, cancellation, … will change the course of COVID-19 singlehandedly. All the measures by many different people, bodies, and institutions, our preparedness of making considered – often small – changes, and our mindfulness that continued observation and analysis of the system – of the development of COVID-19 worldwide – are and will be necessary.

Change has the best chance of being sustainable, if it is considered and iterative.

I realize that I quickly glossed over the intricacies of nonlinearity. Well, this gives me a chance to write another post on the topic in the near future and do a better job.

Boundaries – Personal, Part 2: Cognitive and Interpersonal

In part 1, we dug into the key questions and considerations that can aid us to better understand, establish, and enact Personal Boundaries in the Temporal and Kinetic aspects. In this post, we will continue in the same vein by exploring the essential points in the Cognitive and Interpersonal aspects of Personal Boundaries. Boundaries – Accountability – Support – Expectations are the four dimensions of BASE A model to improve any practice.

Cognitive Personal Boundaries entail how we engage with our thoughts, particularly as they relate to ourselves. In psychology, and in cognitive behavioral therapy in particular, it has come to light in recent years that we humans are prone to a phenomenon known as automatic negative thinking. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman outlines brilliantly in his 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” we have an almost overriding tendency to construct entire narratives around even the most minute pieces of information. If you want to check this, pay attention to the ways in which your mind can (over)react to the way you see someone dressed, or their apparent level of cleanliness, while making your way around in public. You see one piece of information, and you build an entire story about what it means. But, how often is this story trending in a negative direction? Now, consider how much you tend to turn this potentially tremendous source of harmful cognition back toward yourself and your own actions. Having a Personal Cognitive Boundary around this entails noticing your thoughts, particularly those that seem to emerge of their own volition, and challenging their veracity/applicability, especially when they turn things in a negative direction. 

If you read the prior paragraph and mostly thought “hey, good for me, my thought patterns are usually focused on positive things about myself (and others),” well, there is room to be more mindful there as well. Just as automatic negative thoughts can build corrosive, false narratives around otherwise innocuous pieces of information, automatic positive thinking, or APT, (also a recently en vogue psychological term that focuses on the benefits APT can offer) can also have its pitfalls. Do you know anyone who is able, almost without fail, to explain away and/or twist any of their thoughts or actions into part of some larger heroic/martyrized narrative about themselves and their place in the world? Have you ever done it yourself? (hint: we all have, at least once). Be very cautious of this type of thinking as well. When taken too far, it is a step down a path to something not dissimilar to malignant narcissism, which, to quote British psychoanalyst Herbert Rosenfeld, is “a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealized.” Having an appropriate Personal Cognitive Boundary will also aid you in recognizing and mitigating automatic positive thinking that goes too far, too often. 

Lastly, we turn to Personal Boundaries in the interpersonal aspect. Quite simply, these Boundaries inform the way we interact with others. As you consider the interpersonal aspect of your Personal Boundaries, it may be helpful to better understand your extraversion/introversion balance. Although there are a number of trait dimensions that help define the differences between a more extraverted or introverted personality type, the simplest one for our purposes today has to do with whether you draw your renewal, strength, and energy from contact with other people, or from time spent with yourself. People often mistakenly associate extraversion as overtly skillful interactions with others, and introversion as objectively awkward, uncomfortable versions of the same. The problem with this is the attachment to what is openly observable, as I believe that extraversion and introversion are far and away more subjective, internal phenomena. Examine your own experience and begin to answer if you more frequently draw renewal, centeredness, and vitality from sustained contact with others, or from time alone. Perhaps your answer is that it varies and is most often a mix of the two things. Whatever the answer, it comes from inside you, not from some externalized set of definitions based on others’ observations of your experience. Knowing your answer on intro- and extraversion will be essential to setting your Interpersonal Boundaries. 

Another consideration for defining and holding your Interpersonal Boundaries is the way that input (also known as guidance or advice) functions in your life. How much do you either offer or seek out/accept input to or from others? How much of either, or both, is unsolicited? So many of us orient ourselves as either counsel givers or seekers. In either case, what can so frequently go unnoticed is whether or not this process is mutually consensual for all involved. No matter in which direction your preferred tendencies run, if you are not aware of your ego’s role in driving your input-giving or seeking actions, you will be largely powerless before this highly important life dynamic. 

One more contrast to consider when it comes to your Interpersonal Boundaries is as follows: is your purpose to be more interested, or interesting? Do you listen to others with a genuine sense of spontaneity and discovery, or are you simply waiting for the next opportunity to reassert your “self” and find the spotlight? This question is foundational to learning to do improvisational performance where, somewhat counterintuitively, being interested is far more effective than trying to be interesting. Consider your actions and motivations in this light, and see what personal understanding becomes available to you as a result. 

All of the above is in service of helping you better understand your own energy and flow as it relates to your Personal Boundaries. I invite you now to spend 5-10 minutes during at least four separate days over the coming week to further examine your Personal Boundaries in their Temporal, Kinetic, Cognitive, and Interpersonal aspects. For a different kind of reflective journaling experience, make a set of quadrants by drawing an intersecting vertical and horizontal axis on a blank piece of paper. Since there is no hierarchy among the four Personal Boundary aspects, it does not matter how you label the four quadrants, other than to put one aspect in each. Use hand-written text, sketch, clip-art, or whatever motivates and resonates to represent your understanding of your Personal Boundaries in each quadrant. 

Resource Recommendations:

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman – A wonderfully readable, yet scholarly book on the ways we think we think, and the ways our decisions show us that we actually think…

“Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman – A foundational primer on the basic concepts and perspective that comprise intelligence as an affective phenomenon and construct.

“The New Psychology of Leadership” Haslam, et al – One of the best among more recent works on how leadership and followers hip may actually function. Important insights for anyone who seeks not only to lead/influence others, but who also wants to understand why certain things work at some times, and then do not work at all at others.

“Finding Fred” by Carvell Wallace and iHeart Media – A touching and through-provoking podcast on the ways we can choose to be in the world, and the potential impact they can have on those around us, and beyond…

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/finding-fred/id1477279443

Until next week, when we will explore Professional Boundaries and continue to build on our self-understanding practice together. 

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