As a result of some traveling, I didn't have a chance to get
to the library and fill up with my usual relaxation reading of trashy mystery
novels. I find them diverting and totally non-memorable. That's great! In a few
years I can read them again and not remember how they turned out. I often read
four or five a week.
I found myself with a lot of work to do with nothing to
read to take breaks with. You can only do so many Crosswords puzzles. (Being on sabbatical doesn't mean you don't work – it means you work on the stuff you want to work on!) So I
started perusing our collection of more serious novels to find something I had
always wanted to read but had missed. Something interesting, but not too engrossing. When I pick up the really
good stuff, I often get involved and read for four hours or more, blowing off
the work I intended to do. I needed something that I could put down after 20 to
30 minutes of break. So, what's it going to be? Infinite Jest? Or Ulysses?
It was recently the birthday of the woman who published Ulysses, first as a serial, then as a
bound book. (The books were confiscated and burned.) I learned about this from The Writer's Almanac the other day, so I
decided to try Joyce's masterpiece.
seems to meet my requirements. It's interesting, but challenging – and pretty
easy to put down. Joyce was one of the first to do a true "stream of
consciousness" novel and it's been some time since I read another one.
(Virginia Woolf – some years ago.)
Chapter one is about poet and philosopher Stephen Daedalus,
who I remember from Portrait of the
Artist as a Young Man. The stream of his thoughts are difficult. It feels
like half the words are made up, and the other half are ones that I think are
real but don't know – many in French, Latin, or German, well above my limited
capabilities in those languages. But he's interested in interesting things.
Chapter two switches to a more prosaic character, Leopold
Bloom. His thoughts run more to living in the moment and reacting to his
context than to musing on deep issues like the transmigration of souls
(metempsychosis – one of Daedalus' interests). He thinks about food,
interacting with his cat, the people he meets in the street, sex. (Daedalus is
interested in sex too but at a more poetic level.)
After two chapters, I've already found a number of things interesting
about Ulysses. First, how true the
stream of consciousness seems. My own stream of consciousness includes both Daedalus
and Bloom kinds of thinking, and when I analyze my own thoughts, they really do
the sort of thing that Joyce is transcribing. But second, how false it feels.
The thoughts of Daedalus or Bloom both feel
(in my response to reading them) choppy, disconnected, scattered. The thoughts
in my own head feel (mostly) natural,
coherent, flowing, despite looking similar if transcripted. Why the difference?
My suspicion is the key is personal meaning making. The hard part of explaining this is the
critical question: "what does 'meaning' mean." It's a bit tricky –
besides being self-referential. The definition I like best comes from reading
semanticists and cognitive linguistics (Langacker, Lakoff, Fauconnier). The
idea is that our concepts and thoughts are interpreted in terms of a large web of
encyclopedic knowledge about the
world we each live in. Meaning is an aura of associations – a subset of our
world knowledge that we each activate in the moment to interpret an idea or
This has a lot of implications that help me make sense of the world I see. First, it suggests that the meaning a given
individual gives to an utterance, observation, something they hear or read, can
depend strongly on context. Our interpretation of the context we are in
(framing) controls what of our huge store of encyclopedic knowledge is primed – not necessarily in our
conscious mind at the moment, but sort of "first in line" to get
activated when a chain of associations is generated to run through our limited
Let me now turn back to the question of stream of
consciousness. Reading a transcript of what might be an accurate rendition of
Leopold Bloom's conscious thoughts (OK, LB is a fictional character, but you
know what I mean!), Joyce is providing a transcript, but Bloom is not only
streaming what the transcript says. He has presumably activated a whole set
of associations with each one – and those are often associations I don't have.
(This is even worse for me with Stephen Daedalus, since he is a contemplative
Catholic and religion plays a huge role in many of his interpretations. There's a lot I'm missing here.) Bloom's
chain is constructed with invisible links that his aura of associations make
with each term. They provide the glue that sticks the pieces together and makes
them feel coherent. When I interpret Joyce's transcript, I do so with my own
mental transcript making my own meanings – and my auras of association don't always
overlap enough with Bloom's that his stream feels coherent.
One thing this says to me is that "stream of
consciousness" as a literary device leaves much to be desired. In his
recent book, The Sense of Style,
Stephen Pinker has a marvelous chapter that gives beautiful advice about writing
clearly for good communication. (I highly recommend Chapter 3 for teachers as
well!) The key idea is to structure your writing so that readers are given
sufficient information to activate their interior contexts to
create the intended meaning from your text. In stream of consciousness writing
this becomes almost impossible. In Daedalus' stream, it is clear that local
politics and theological issues of interest around 1900 significantly inform
meaning for him. Hard for me to make this out without a scholarly
"Handbook to Ulysses," – and I don't have enough interest in those
issues to get one.
I conclude that communicating well with stream of
consciousness is exceedingly difficult – particularly if one wants
one's work to be perceived as meaningful in later generations. Too much needs
to be explicated for your reader to both create the meaning you want and to
make the flow of thought seem natural.
Now, those of you who know me know I'm not a literary critic.
If you made it this far, you've been patiently waiting for me to get to the
point. Here it is, 1000 words in. (Don't do this in a research paper!)
I am both a teacher and an education researcher. A lot of my
research is qualitative. My data are often transcripts of videos of interviews,
group problem solving, and focus groups. I often have to try to interpret what students are saying. I want to know not just what they say, but to go
beyond the transcript and infer what meaning they are making. (I would normally
have said "if any", but given the definition of "meaning"
above, my students are always "making meaning", just not necessarily
the kind of meaning I want them to.) My colleagues and I draw on a variety of
tools to infer this – gestures, word choice, tone of voice, etc. – together
with our understanding of the context and our everyday communication skills. Of
course one must also bring a theoretical perspective on how to interpret what
one sees, to transform an observation into a measurement.
For the interpretation of student responses there are two extreme
theoretical orientations: knowledge-in-pieces theory (KiP) and theory-theory (θ2). The former views
students as having lots of bits of "irreducible" knowledge or
"primitives". These are the places where any reasoning chain  of
Claim→data→warrant = claim→data→warrant
= claim→ …
ends. A primitive is something like "unsupported objects
fall" or "push harder and it will move faster". Of course, in
physics, we create complex reasoning for these, but in "folk-physics"
models of the world, these are things you learned as an infant by watching
and testing how the world worked. They form the core of lots of our everyday
The KiP approach starts by assuming students tend to bring
up individual primitives (or resources)
and try to get by with that; or that they bring up an easily generated story
composed of a few simple primitives (as in Kahnemann's "fast
thinking" ). KiP researchers then try to analyze more complex patterns of
reasoning and build up an understanding of "knowledge structures".
approach starts by assuming students have a coherent theory of a phenomenon, and analysis is informed by this assumption. But what we as scientists see as
a single coherent phenomenon or set of phenomena may be seen by students as
being governed by different coherent (but more local) theories.
approaches start from opposite ends and move towards each other. We might
imagine a continuum between these two extremes. Some student responses could be
more towards one end than the other, but empirical observation might let us
determine where on that continuum a particular student's response on a
particular subject belongs.
I suggest that the
situation is more complex than can be described by a single continuum and that
my ramblings on reading Ulysses are
relevant to seeing how.
My stream of
consciousness story says that in anyone's thoughts there is a continual chain
of sequentially associated items popping up and that while these may appear
incoherent to an outside observer, to the one experiencing the chain, local
meaning creates a sense of coherence in
the local flow. But in this
picture, the self-perception of coherence is about how thoughts are changing moment
to moment, not necessarily about the long-term constant activation of a
coherent theory summing up and managing a multi-minute long argument.
One may feel that
one's own thoughts are coherent – and they may be – but I suggest that a
personal feeling of coherence depends on a derivative (information local to a
moment) rather than an integral (information over a long time scale) and may
be misleading. This could be why a number of educational theorists I have
conversed with feel strongly that one must begin by assuming coherence. It just
feels that way from inside!
Of course when we
are teaching physics to students, one of our long-term goals is for them to
learn to build large-scale coherent arguments, with reasoning that reaches over
many minutes, not just a step or two. Often, it looks to me as a teacher that
many a novice physics student can't put three steps together without forgetting
the first one!
When my research
activity turns to analyzing a transcript of a student solving a physics
problem, I'm often interested in their fine-grained stream of consciousness and
the particular association that drives them in the moment.
In a problem about
Newton's third law (two interacting objects exert equal and opposite forces on
each other), have they recalled Newton's second law (a = Fnet/m) or its folk-physics
equivalent (an object moves in proportion to the force
acting on it) and focused only on the force, ignoring the effect of different
masses? In a problem on pressure in a liquid, have they focused on one variable
(the depth), failing to be coherent about the implications of their choice of
coordinate system on the sign of g? Is their response affected by locally
activated epistemological resources, such as "trust my physical
intuition" or "the authorities must know what they are talking
about"? By affective responses: "This is scary" or "My
intuition always disagrees with physics"? There are lots of local
questions that are deeply interesting. 
That's all very
KiP driven. But we do all have long term coherences in our everyday thinking. There
are patterns and regularities that last over very long time scales.
four, my daughter was able to sit in one place with a game or coloring book for
an hour or more, totally engaged. If I watched closely, she may have been
jumping from one idea to the next with what looked like little coherence, but
often she was building a story, shifting and changing it, trying one thing then
another until it felt right in the moment. And there was a long term frame –
the story telling and the very fact that the activity was about story telling
being coherent and persistent over a long time scale. My students also have even
longer term coherences, over an entire semester regularly activating "My
intuition always disagrees with physics and I should ignore it" at the
first sign of trouble. My own long-term highly stable coherences include
"always start with an equation you can trust."
So what is an
appropriate ontology for thinking about our student's thinking? Should we pay
more attention to the fact that thinking is often local and driven by short
term coherences explicable using a KiP-like analysis? Or to the long-term
framing and average patterns that appear and look more like θ2 when
you step back and look at a coarser grain size?
Of course my
answer is that you have to do both to get a complete picture. A nice example of
this kind of "two-scale-doublethink" is provided in many-body quantum
physics. I'll explain that in my next post.
 R. Langacker, Foundations of Cognitive Grammar (1987).
 Unfortunately, his Chapter 4 proceeds to violate most of
the precepts in Chapter 3 and is almost incomprehensible. Maybe he intends it
to be an "exercise for the reader" to figure out how to fix it. Very
 This chain is based on Toulmin's analysis of reasoning.
Every claim must be supported by data, and the reason the data supports the
claim is a warrant. But every warrant is also a claim, so, like a four-year
old, we can continue asking "why" (demanding data and warrants) forever.
This chain stops at primitives: Things we know from our everyday experience
that we have no reason for. They are "just the way things are."
 D. Kahneman, Thinking
Fast and Slow
(Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2011).
 A. Gupta & A. Elby, Int. J. Sci. Ed. 33:18 (2011)