Humanities Lecture 2015: Book Nerd, Meet Tech Geek

Back in the halcyon days of my undergraduate years, I took several classes from a William Blake scholar, and my favorite class was titled The Word and The Image.

We talked quite a bit about this plate from Blake, and I remember our teacher pointing out the the sharp straight lines, the curves, the use of darkness and light. About his medium. His message. His art. The Science of his Art.  Licensed under Public Domain Public Domain

I remember thinking (maybe for the first time) about how science and art are intertwined. How I had to look up information about a scientist because of poet’s drawing. How we can learn from art about science. How science informs art.

How The Word and The Image are symbiotic teachers to the students who want to sit with those ideas. My teacher said something that changed the way I thought about time and learning.

Here’s what I remember her saying:

I like to take one idea and stick with it for a year. Like the letters of John Keats or the many sketches of William Blake or the phases of Henri Matisse. A true artist sticks with an idea for a year or more and tries to reach as many audiences as she can. The Image is simultaneously The Word when you consider teaching others about your passion.

Here’s how I carved out some time to sit with the same idea in the last year, I pitched the same title to five different audiences. This “Book Nerd, Meet Tech Geek” idea gained acceptance for me to speak at the Bridges Conference (about OER as professional development to tech people), which led to an invitation to speak at Western Washington University (John Farquhar’s team and colleagues), a Humanities Lecture at EvCC (for students taking Humanities 101 and their teachers), at NISOD (about professional development for trainers, professional development coordinators, and grass-roots OER organizers), and at Institute of New Faculty Development (a POD organization for higher education professional development).

I got lucky with this one idea this year, right?

And I realize that when you look at my presentation titles for 2014-2015, you’d think I’m just recycling the same ideas, but I’m not. My audiences change every time, so I need to focus on different ideas. My Images may mean different Words to different listeners. I may use the same Images but I have different Words. Otherwise, I’d bore myself and I’m too selfish to do that! Since I’m going to stand in front of students and teachers and debunk this separation between STEM and The Arts, I better walk my talk and use the Internets to draft some ideas.

So here’s a working draft of what I’m going to say tomorrow at the Humanities Cafe talk. What follows is what I may or may not say. I’ve been known to improv at bit when I’m speaking to people. Turns out that’s good for my brain. Read on.

“Read not to contradict nor to believe, but to weigh and consider”~ Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Some of you may recognize this epigraph from Joyce Walker’s email, and this is what I’d like for you to do today. Weigh and consider my ideas about art and technology. About STEM and The Arts. Here’s the first thing you should know: This division only exists because of funding. Because of money. Because of who decides what to support, how, and why. Because of policies about what you should learn and why. Because of what will get you a job and what won’t.

“Bacon-Rose” by Francis Bacon – Sylva Sylvarum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

I did not get to attend all of the talks in this series. My job on this campus is to support faculty and students with their online, hybrid, web-enhanced, and face-to-face courses. When things go awry with some technologies, it’s my team who helps put everything back in order.

Sometimes our work with technology, teachers, and students is chaotic and unpredictable, so although I wanted to go to hear all eight talks, I only got to attend two.

They were both about the arts, and here’s the thing: I used technology to reflect on what I learned.

I used Twitter to live-tweet Mike VanQuickenbourne’s lecture. Because, let’s face it, live-tweeting a philosopher with tenure is amazing! He can say things I can’t because he has tenure! It’s my version of fist-pumping and woofing in the crowd. I can’t help myself these days; I like to share via the Twitter machine.

I attended the lecture of Thom Lee and Mike Story in the pottery studio. A space meant for the creation of art but we talked about math the whole time. Later that day, I wrote about what I learned using the federated wiki. Another technology that I used to prepare for this talk.

Photo Credit: C'est Moi

Photo Credit: C’est Moi

I took the words and the images from a math teacher and an art teachers, and I made something of my own. What I created is now openly available for anyone to read, revise, remix, or re-envision for their own.

By using this Venn Diagram, (that I will draw on the board before the audience gets there) I want to talk about the perceived division of STEM and The Arts, as it relates to my interest in open educational resources.

Prior to coming today, you had access to the blurb that wrote about this talk, and some resources to read as homework. I’m going to assume that you did the optional reading (wink), and because I also taught first-year college students for ten years, I’m also going to assume you might need a review because you have two or three other classes that are stressing you out right now (most likely STEM courses).

And yet, you’re here for an hour to listen to some woman who writes stuff like this:

How did a book nerd become a tech geek? In my work as the Director of eLearning, people are often surprised to learn that my background is in English Studies. I want to highlight that when we put the technology first as the ‘good idea,’ we lose momentum. The ‘slow idea’ is OER (Open Educational Resources) and open learning, but it takes people connecting with people to make it happen. I’d like the audience to leave with thoughts on the way they use technology to connect their ideas with other people.

Then you were asked to Read “Slow Ideas” by Atul Gawande,

Watch this video:

Listen to a short video about Open Educational Resources (OER)

AND Check out Fools Who Do Art  on Instagram

You may have thought to yourself, “Wow, I’m really glad this woman doesn’t teach anymore because I don’t see how all of this comes together. I really hope Dr. Walker doesn’t make me write an essay based on this lady’s work. I wonder if she’s going to ask me to join a cult. I wonder if I’ll get extra credit. Am I being punked by Dr. Walker?”

I promise I can make this all come together. Let’s start with two terms that have been re-purposed and appropriated since I was your age.

Nothing was more insulting than being called a nerd or a geek. If you were smart, you were decidedly uncool. Popular myths about smart people didn’t help.

If you were a smart young woman, you were even more threatening. Hideously unattractive. Undesirable. If you were a smart young man, you were kind of a loser. Hideously weak. Undesirable.

So let’s look at how these words are defined on Wikipedia. Before we do that, I have a question for you.

Photo: Stina Jonsson on

Photo: Stina Jonsson on

How many of you have been told by teachers to never use Wikipedia?

[Pause for hands, quick discussion]

How many of those teachers told you why they didn’t want you to use to Wikipedia?

[Pause for horror stories from teachers of the past].

Here’s the thing: I love Wikipedia.

I’m not an active editor or contributor but I love, love, love reading what other people have created. I’ve learned so much about art from that technology. I’ve learned so much about that technology from the art of Wikipedia.

Let’s now look at the words “nerds” and “geek.”

Nerd (adjective: nerdy) is a descriptive term,often used pejoratively, indicating that a person is overly intellectual, obsessive, or socially impaired. They may spend inordinate amounts of time on unpopular, obscure, or non-mainstream activities, which are generally either highly technical or relating to topics of fiction or fantasy, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities

Geek is a slang term originally used to describe eccentric or non-mainstream people; in current use, the word typically connotes an expert or enthusiast or a person obsessed with a hobby or intellectual pursuit, with a general pejorative meaning of a “peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, esp[ecially] one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.”

When you aren’t a student, what do you geek out or nerd about in your free-time? How do you learn about this topic?

[Pause to listen to audience members. Write on the board in a giant Venn Diagram whether they learn about The Arts or STEM. Write in the center when some topics sound like both.]

Let’s allow this collection of ideas sit for a second because I want to bring in OER and Gawande here since that’s what you watched and read for homework. Let’s start with some quotes from Gawande that I think apply broadly to anything innovative.

All of the following sentences are from Gawande. I deleted all of the information about medical innovations and kept the statements that I think apply to this talk today about OER, STEM, and The Arts.

[Here I will point to my Venn Diagram of STEM, OER, The Arts]

People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change. Why do some innovations spread so swiftly and others so slowly?

In our era of electronic communications, we’ve come to expect that important innovations will spread quickly. Plenty do…But there’s an equally long list of vital innovations that have failed to catch on. The puzzle is why.

To create norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way.

In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, ‘turnkey’ solutions to the major difficulties of the world–hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic.

They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability. from a presentation of @bonstewart from a presentation of @bonstewart

Here’s the most “uncontrolled variability” that all of us face: We have no idea what the future holds. Contrary to all of the advice about STEM jobs this and STEM jobs that, we don’t know what the future holds. Your education has to prepare you for a future you cannot see or predict.

Had somebody told me when I was your age that I would work in the technology field and that I would love it, I would thought you were a cruel liar out to sabotage my future self.

Yet here I am. A “technology person” talking about the value of The Arts.

Here’s the most radical thing I’m going to say today: Any scientist who is worth a salt does not see this STEM/Arts distinction. Any artist who worth a salt does not see this STEM/Arts distinction. It’s the institutions that fund and employ these researchers, creators, and educators that have created this divide.

The question is: How do we as learners value both The Arts and STEM?

In my corner of academia, the answer is OER. Here is where technology is helping to spread the “slow idea.” In the short video about Open Educational Resources (OER), you saw an example where scholars from one corner of the world connect to other scholars in the world. Ideas from one area connecting to others ideas not just here in America but around the world. By the click of a mouse. By the Internet. Ideas. Words. Images. All of it. That’s how we learn. That’s how ideas spread.

That’s how people learn. We are nerds and geeks of our own learning using the Internet.

For example, let’s take a non-scholarly interest of mine to examine how I use the Internet. My most cynical colleagues say that Internet has done little for us except to expedite how we buy things, waste time with meaningless social interactions, and gain easy access to pornography. That’s all true, I will point out. There is still the power of the Internet and its potential that we have yet to figure out how to bring into our institutions and classrooms. That’s a slow idea.

For example, I learned how to knit from a woman who lives in London who posted a video to Vimeo. I watched it over again and over again until I could knit on my own. I then made friends locally in my community who knit. They are now friends I knit with when we can and we connect by email. Recently I became friends with a woman based on our mutual interest of knitting and connected learning. In sum, I have made meaningful relationships with people using technology thanks to my interest in an art.

We can access ideas from one area by connecting to others ideas not just in America but to people around the world. By the click of a mouse. The Internet. Ideas. Words. Images. All of it. That’s how we learn. That’s how ideas spread. That’s how people learn.

Yet here you are taking classes in STEM and The Arts to check boxes to fulfill requirements. Yet here you are being asked to synthesize ideas that seem very either/or but it’s really both. Your curriculum forces this separation even as your teachers are friends with people on both sides. And get this–some of the artists have spouses who are people in STEM, and STEM people are married to artists.  Some of you may be products of that STEM and The Arts Venn Diagram (wink, you know what I mean).

What’s been created in this division in education is not user experience with learners on the Internet. It’s careful design and labeling as determined by funding. Who pays for what, how, and why. How we fund the Liberal Arts degrees.

This is all over Twitter.

This is all over Twitter.

When I did a search for “Liberal Arts Education” the first hit was from University of Phoenix. A for-profit university.

Somebody from their marketing department had clearly paid for that link to appear above Wikipedia.

I scrolled down and found this:

The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberal, “worthy of a free person”)[1] to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were the core liberal arts, while arithmetic, geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy also played a (somewhat lesser) part in education.[2]

In modern times, liberal arts education is a term that can be interpreted in different ways. It can refer to certain areas of literature, languages, art history, music history, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology, and science.[3] It can also refer to studies on a liberal arts degree program. For example, Harvard University offers a Master of Liberal Arts degree, which covers biological and social sciences as well as the humanities.[4] For both interpretations, the term generally refers to matters not relating to the professional, vocational, or technical curricula.

Yet here you are taking classes in STEM and The Arts to check boxes to fulfill requirements. Yet here you are being asked to synthesize ideas that seem very either/or but it’s really both. It’s really both.


The reason I had you watch TED Video on “The Neuroscience of Creativity” is because Charles Limb researches something he calls “magical that isn’t magic.”

And that’s a powerful idea. That’s, in essence, a really powerful way of thinking about your passion. What’s magical to you that isn’t magic?

He also takes a stab at rapping, and that’s the kind of giggly awesome that is only possible thanks to the Internet, right? Hell yes! A Brain surgeon by day, Rapper by night. It’s only a matter of time until he has a Kardashian sister stalking him, I’m sure.

Limb says, “Artistic creativity is a neurologic product that can be examined using rigorous scientific methods.” He asks, “Why should scientists study creativity?” And then did you see those brain waves during improv? Wow. That’s magic.

He also makes a radical claim about brain research as a case where, “Science has to catch up to Art.” Note that he does so not by saying one is better than the other. He simply asks questions that lead to more questions.

That’s why I’m involved with education. I like to see people asking good questions. In The Arts, STEM, and The Social Sciences. I like to see teachers and students learning from one another. I think that’s everyday magic.

I like to think that there’s a creative science to the art of learning. There’s an art to scientific creativity. That’s magical.

When I sent my lecture topic idea to Joyce, she and I had a lovely email exchange. I had asked her if she checked out Fools Who Do Art. She had, and she wrote:

I recall that Tableaux were still being “performed” in the evenings at the Laguna Beach Art Festival in California, which my mom and I always went to every year when I was a kid. I also recall that Virginia Woolf’s 1941 novel, Between the Acts which describes a church bazaar at which Tableaux were performed. At least, I think I remember it 🙂

Which led me to look up some ideas on…you guessed it…Wikipedia!

I found this blurb explaining the tableaux vivants (high-five Wikipedia writers):

Before radio, film and television, tableaux vivants were popular forms of entertainment, even in frontier towns.[2] Before the age of color reproduction of images, the tableau vivant (often abbreviated to tableau) was sometimes used to recreate paintings “on stage”, based on an etching or sketch of a painting. This could be done as an amateur venture in a drawing room, or as a more professionally produced series of tableaux presented on a theatre stage, one following another, usually to tell a story without requiring all the usual trappings of a “live” theatre performance. 

They thus ‘educated’ their audience to understand the form taken by later Victorian and Edwardian era magic lantern shows, and perhaps also sequential narrative comic strips (which first appeared in modern form in the late 1890s). (plural: Tableaux vivants)

I read a bit more Laguna Art Festival: 

The Pageant is held eight weeks each summer and consists of 90 minutes of “living pictures” accompanied by a professional narrator, an orchestra, and period songs by professional vocalists. It hosts more than a quarter million people each year. 

I found this image Two dimensional painting on Three dimensional actors. I also found this website about Renaissance Festivals. An hour later I realized I needed to email Joyce back to thank her for her thoughts.

Thoughts that I weighed and considered.

All of this was available to me with an Internet connection and my computer. I taught myself a lot about art using technology. By reading. By sitting with an idea. By sharing those ideas with others. You. Now I’ve left a digital footprint of my own with this blog. Maybe somebody else will do their own magic of learning with the Internet. That’s magical.

Let’s pause now to use some technology to talk about art.

What’s your take on Fools Who Do Art? Is this a magical representation of the blending of The Arts and STEM?

[Pause to show images, to listen to the students, show them my favorite]

I looked up all of that information above because Joyce said, “It’s important to note that this new fad has a history.”

Yes, this new fad. The history. Yes.

Originally I thought I would conclude this talk with trying to make the case that students and teachers should care more open educational resources. To talk more about this fad that has a history. Here in Washington State, we have some momentum with this slow idea. We have some risk taking teachers who are already on board with this message. We are going to celebrate them later today at our OER Festival. This movement makes my inner geek and nerd sing.

I invite you to come to my office, respond to my blog, tweet to me, send me a hand-written letter, send me a carrier pigeon with a scroll, or call me. I’d love to talk more about the future of OER on this campus, and I have a few ideas on what we could do better.

It’s important to note that this new fad has a history.

For now, I want to conclude by reading you a bit of poem:

Degrade first the Arts if you’d Mankind degrade.
Hire idiots to Paint with cold light and hot shade:
Give high price for the worst, leave the best in disgrace,
And with Labours of Ignorance fill every place.
~William Blake (1757-1828)  Marginalia

Thank you for (reading) listening to my words and images. This is magic.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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