Archive for August, 2011


Navigation Systems

It appears that we have two ways of thinking effectively. Or at least that is what Gladwell seems to argue. We have the thin-slice which you all know about by now and we have the information gathering, rational brain that collects evidence and makes a thoughtful, weighted decision. In chapter four, Gladwell discusses the system devised by Dr. Brendan Reilly to use the thin-slice in a rational, effective way. He thereby combined the two. He made the process systematic and able to be replicated by physicians everywhere. Reilly’s friend describes him as someone who is “always exploring different topics whether it’s philosophy or Scottish poetry or the history of medicine” (133). Clearly this is a person who strives for and succeeds at looking at the big picture.

I think that is something the previous two posts address as well. How are you, as new students, going to balance the details with the essentials, whether they be sleep, social time or studying. So, what is the big picture for you? What system do you use currently to create this balance between slow, rationally made decisions and the snap judgments you make to survive? Do you already know you need to hone those skills or to build them up? Number four of our study guide points to the idea of students being empowered to make decisions. How do you define what it means to be empowered and what kinds of decisions aid you in that pursuit? Specifically, how do you relate to Reilly’s story? More importantly, why do you think Gladwell tells the story of Reilly in the way that he does?

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Structuring the Spontaneous

Part of Malcolm Gladwell’s text discusses the idea of spontaneity (meaning:  coming from a natural impulse; without effort or premeditation; unplanned) and how even the most spontaneous decisions can be shaped and managed by experience.

He offers the case study of Paul Van Riper, a high-ranking military commander tasked with playing the role of rogue militant leader of the Red Team, an opposing force participating in the war game scenario Millennium Challenge.  Despite his impressive military history and years of government training, Van Riper chose to forego all of that training as he led his group of insurgents against an overwhelming opposing force.  Much to everyone’s surprise, his decision was a good one; he was successful and vanquished the Blue Team, leaving sixteen Blue Team ships at the bottom of the Persian Gulf (110).

How did that happen?  How could a military commander win by essentially forgetting all of the things he had learned over the course of his career?

After some reflection and analysis, it was determined that, quite simply, Van Riper’s spontaneous reactions to the Millenium Challenge caught the opponent by surprise.  Van Riper stated, “The first thing I told our staff is that we could be in command and out of control” (118).   He essentially predicted what the other side was expecting of his team and made sure to react in a way that was counterintuitive to his military training.   His approach was a remarkable success.

My question to you is this:  How does that scenario relate to your own college experience?

As you begin your freshman year, you will find yourself placed in situations that will challenge your previous years of academic training.  You will be placed in groups for group projects with complete strangers; you will be asked to balance multiple classes with conflicting deadlines; you will be asked to prep for several major exams, likely to be delivered in the same week (or even on the same day!).

How will you be out of control and yet still remain in charge enough to overcome the challenges placed before you?   What does Gladwell say about achieving that balance?

A Moment of Reflection

Believe it or not, we are almost halfway through the blogging window for the Summer Reading Project.  As always, summer seems to be flying by!  I thought this might be a good time to briefly step back from the content of the book and revisit two of the project goals, included in your Reading Guide, as a way to begin to reflect and evaluate the merits of the project itself, especially now that many of you have finished the book and have started to participate in the discussions.  As some of you will find in my Critical Writing and Reading I sections this fall, it is kind of my thing to check in, so is everyone hydrated, is everyone awake, is everyone feeling comfortable enough to proceed, is everyone learning something?  Okay then, moving on, the two goals I would like to highlight in this reflection are #2 and #5.

From the Summer Reading Project Guide:

2.) Students are introduced to learning communities.

5.) Students learn how to communicate with faculty/staff/peers.

I certainly hope that Blink and your introduction to this first “learning community” have added to your overall summer experience so far, and of course helped to prepare you for the fall, but I would like to hear from you about connections you have made between the reading/project and your experiences (past, present, and projected future).  Have you felt comfortable sharing your ideas and questions with both faculty and other students?  Have there been any obstacles, concerns, or questions that have prevented you from participating?  Is there anything you have learned, not so much from the book directly, but from your participation in this project?  More specifically, is there anything you have learned from others participating?  To bring the book back into it, are there aspects of this book, in particular, that make it easier to share and develop conversations?

Behind the Curtain of Race and Gender

Late this summer, I was sitting at a local music venue and pub having a burger with a girlfriend when she got up to talk to an older gentlemen at the next table. She waved me over and introduced me to Bill Osborne, a composer. After a few minutes of conversation I could clearly tell this was a special man who was sensitive, thoughtful and kind—or at least I thin-sliced him that way. Soon enough his wife Abbie came up in conversation. She was in Germany at the time, playing in an orchestra there and it was apparent from the tone in his voice that he missed her very much. He had this adoring look in his eye when her name was mentioned.

So, you can imagine my surprise while reading Blink to have Gladwell use the example of Abbie Conant’s story as a lesson on how our stereotyping brain mechanism has real effects in our working and private lives (245-54). The example of Conant and her struggle comes in the conclusion of the book where Gladwell lays out his final argument. Many previous examples are interesting or thought provoking. But, with the exception of the “Seven Seconds in the Bronx” passage (chapter six), for me as a reader, few really hit home in a “real world” sense in the way Conant’s story does. As one student pointed out in my previous post “Taming the Thin-Slice,” women and minorities fall under the wheel of dangerous assumptions most frequently.

The Conant example is so blatant because the audition process was done “blind” (so to speak) and then the hierarchy of the orchestra committee rebelled against their own instincts in favor of their assumptions and prejudices. In a sense, they chose to not rely on their instincts but rather to re-affirm their culturally biased snap-judgments. Here, two thin-slices came into conflict with one another and the fall out was drastic. As Gladwell mentions, it took “eight years, (and) she was reinstated as first trombone.” In that eight years she was subjected to the tests, the challenges and the legal battles that would finally enable her to do the job she was already highly qualified for. Ultimately it would take thirteen years before she was able to do her job and receive equal pay for it (248).

As the previous two posts by Professors Smith and Whittingham address, there is a relationship between using the intelligence of our brains when they thin-slice and the intelligence that also comes from gathering information. But, how do we define this relationship? How do we use the combination effectively? How do learn to make the distinction rationally and consciously like the car salesman? (88-96).

Many would argue that race and gender continue to be major factors of prejudice in society, workplaces and academic settings. Conant chose to turn her struggle into a movement, a way for the music community to recognize its flaws and get more women and minorities playing. You can see her website here:  www.osborne-conant.org

Your job: Read one of the articles posted on Conant’s site addressing the topic of equality and respond/relate it to your thoughts on Gladwell’s interpretation. Do you think significant enough changes have been made in the music community? How large a role do you see race and gender playing in the workplace, social settings or schools? Or, do you even agree that race and gender play a significant role in our decision making process when it comes to other people?