Archives for posts with tag: productive negativity

A bit more on the theme I was addressing yesterday.

Getting lost and finding our way back is something we do every day. It is how we come to know the world: he have ideas about it, we act on those ideas, and the world — in all its stubborn materiality — lets us act or doesn’t. When the world doesn’t bend to our will, we have to reassess our understanding of it. We are lost, metaphorically.

I watch this all the time with my children. My son is one, and he’s trying to figure out how the world works. It’s a question of mechanics — if I push here, he seems to ask, what happens? Frequently he wants something — a toy, his milk cup, whatever his sister is playing with — and his efforts to get it fail. He gets angry. (And bites things — tables, himself, his mother, anything close to his mouth.) He is confused and frustrated. More to the point, he’s lost, at least for the moment — his map of the world has failed him.

So what does he do? He tries something new. He may make the same mistake twice, but usually not three times. He finds his way back by remapping the world. Of course, his new map is faulty, too, even if it’s refined. It’s better than before.

But let’s be clear: we all have faulty maps. We’ve just had more time to refine them. And that feeling of confusion is disorienting. We lose our bearings and, in extreme cases, become driftless.*

When we feel this confusion, we might be to dig in our heals and hold stubbornly to what we think we know. (My son is doing this when he bites the table in frustration.) Or — and this is the key to the value of engaging with theory — we might recognize that in losing our bearings, we can also lose restrictions that we have imposed upon ourselves (or that we have internalized) about how the world should work. We can refine our map of the world in a radical way. That’s what I mean by “the potential for a dizzyingly free range of movement” in my last post. Liberating and scary are two sides of the same coin.

* The link is to the only video I could find of Greg Brown singing “Driftless.” It’s a great song, but not a great recording. I also recommend his song “Two Little Feet” as an antidote, if you find “Driftless” leaves you feeling too exposed. You can find different versions on YouTube.


This semester I’m teaching CMN 3109: Advanced Theories in Communication. I’ve taught the class before, both at the University of Ottawa and at the University of North Dakota.

This semester I am trying something a bit new. At first glance, theory seems like an impractical exercise in abstraction, the type of thing parents would discourage their children from pursuing, ‘cuz how’s that gonna get you a job? But I think, on the contrary, that theory is practical. It’s an effort to explain how we experience the world, and it helps us maneuver through the world more effectively. Theory helps us understand problems and solve them.

That’s the idea I want to put into practice this semester. I’m going to use my blog (read by a total of four people, perhaps? two? just me?) to think through the pedagogical side of that idea. What exercises can I lead my students through to help them see for themselves how the abstractions of theory help us understand our everyday experience?

I’ve put together three axioms to help clarify that process. They are:

  • Axiom 1: Theory is an attempt to explain our experience of the world.
  • Axiom 2: If the explanation theory offers doesn’t match our experience, it’s bad theory.
  • (Axiom 2a: In the end, it’s all bad theory.)
  • Axiom 3: We must refine our explanation to replace bad theory with good theory.

In addition, on Tuesday I’ll be leading a presentation on “How to Succeed at University.” It’s for first year students, and I want to make it valuable, despite its atrocious title. I offer four pieces of advice:

  • Show up.
  • Take notes.
  • Get lost.
  • Find your way back again.

It’s the final two that are the most interesting. They’re about “productive negativity,” or the value of confusion. We can get lost in a lot of ways — we can lose ourselves in a book, we can follow a map wrong, we can be confused. They are all important (I follow maps wrong all the time!), but I want to emphasize the value of confusion: when we find ourselves in a place we don’t understand, we’ve been given two gifts. First, we are not beholden to the rules that would normally govern that place because we don’t know them and haven’t internalized them. Without them, we have the potential for a dizzyingly free range of movement. Such freedom is scary, but it is also liberating.

Second, if we can figure out why we’re confused, we can identify a starting point for finding our own way back to places that are familiar. We get confused when there are two possible answers to a question, but only one can be right. We don’t know which because we haven’t acquired the tools to discern between them (or because our teacher has not given us the tools). But that’s our starting point — we can identify and evaluate the two possible answers.

But when we find our way back, we see our familiar places differently. It’s something like a parallax effect: it’s the same world, but our angle on it has changed.

So my goal this semester is to find ways to translate these abstractions into concrete experiences for my students. I’ll keep my notes here — if I do luck into finding a reader, I’d love to hear what you think.