does it matter?


I know that loose physics analogies drive physicists to irritation, but I need to invoke one here: matter and antimatter. Those who have familiarity with CERN know something of the underlying science, including the understanding that these oppositional particles originate as pairs. One begets the other.

Similarly, there would not be any Science Education at the Crossroads were it not for the simultaneous presence of its exact opposite*. And yet, like matter/antimatter pairs, the two can only exist in separate spaces; otherwise they annihilate one another. This is why they are scheduled six months apart and why people shudder at one when “the conference that shall not be named” is invoked at the other. Yet, as profound and important differences exist, stories of contrast and origin are often apocryphal.**   When we tell these stories over pints at a pub, important contrasts and truths can be lost if viewed through the haze of unfiltered ales. Here I seek to re-clarify.

In spite of a rich history, stacks of journals and proceedings, and longstanding traditions, much of what occurs at NARST and the many gatherings like it does not matter. In fact, the longstanding traditions of the organization disable it. There are few authentic debates about substantive issues. When contradictory views are raised they typically emanate from old-timers eager to dismiss innovation.  Formal structures suppress deliberation. And, any movements in the direction of real action are absent. In defense of any mega-scholar-organization, intellectual indifference is its lifeblood.  And, either because of or in spite of this fact, it continues to attract ever-increasing numbers each year.

Miraculously, in the midst of indifference, lively and substantive debates thrive in the interstices where they can avoid collision with their opposites.  Celebration of academic discourse is consigned to the unscheduled and unsupervised spaces — third spaces, white spaces, open spaces — choose your space.  That’s where professional learning really transpires: not during keynote talks or symposia or anything scheduled in Ballroom C. To access these powerful moments you must violate the norms printed in the program and recommended by the President-elect.  In those spaces, you may even happen upon a pair of individuals getting to a point where they break past the tradition and enact something new.  But, alas, it’s rare, and for good reason.

The rarity is unsurprising because those spaces are not programmed nor planned.  The premise of Crossroads is that people — specifically you — are invested in coming together to discuss ideas that matter. This is enabled by the deliberate space, separated from the antimatter, but it desperately requires something more of the active participant. To be a productive collaborator at Crossroads, you must present yourself as somebody concerned about what matters. Your paper and presentation must reveal WHY you want to share. Is it because the topic is central to who you are and/or who you want to be? Is it because you are seeking compassionate critique from others who share your drive? Are you designing ways to empower a disenfranchised group?  Beyond nurturing deliberations about issues that matter, Crossroads serves as a springboard for doing things that matter. Don’t bring the lamentations about the insensitivity of your supervisor or the struggles you’ve been having with accreditation. (It’s a close competition, but we’ve got you beat on both fronts.) More important, we’ve learned that that stuff doesn’t matter. It will always be there and trudging through it only slows us down.

In contrast, if you find yourself longing to engage with others in a community that talks about what matters and considers ways to do something in response, we urge you to make that evident in your Vexation and Venture.  In return, we (the coordinators of the conference along with all of its participants, including you) dedicate the space to support and even push you forward in your actions.  We can save the antimatters for somewhere else — we all know where those papers can be accepted for presentation.  For Crossroads, we embrace the challenge to not only talk about what must be done, but to take responsibility to see it through.  We look forward to witnessing each of us take up that challenge and responsibility.


* This entire argument is built on the premise that NARST is real. You can look in Wikipedia to see that a page for NARST does not exist.  Of course, its non-existence puts it in good company.

** Adam was not banned, the membership simply lapsed.  I resigned from the Board not out of protest, but to minimize conflicts and maximize focus.

problems as pictures


Providence is the home of the Rhode Island School of Design (RIZZ-dee]. This fact was our inspiration to include a third V in this year’s Call for Papers 1) a Vexation, 2) a Venture, and 3) a Visual. Just as with everything else associated with Crossroads, we followed our typical process for making this change. More specifically, we had a hunch it would work, we asked one other person and when they didn’t hate it, we decided to give it a go.

Representing ideas in a visual form is not a new idea. Books such as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte and Visual Complexity by Manuel Lima offer intriguing possibilities. In the hands of these data scientists and visual artists, rich datasets are reduced to clear representations – of processes, of interactions, and of complexity. Such creations (such as the graphic below) are far beyond what we are expecting from those submitting proposals for the 2012 Crossroads gathering.

Cyclogram time-chart, Salyut 6 mission

Instead, what we have in mind are hand-drawn sketches that fit on an index card. Or the back of a napkin. It turns out that there is a “how to” book by this title offering guidance about how to present problems and products with relatively simple sketches and scribblings. Author/artist Dan Roam has an interesting approach to generating such drawings. He claims artistry is not necessary. Instead, he offers that showing what we are thinking and perceiving is the last step. What comes before is looking, seeing and imagining. If these are done well, then the illustration will flow from mind to hand.

Roam provides clever videos to accompany his book. There he suggests that we “see” in six different ways and that there are six corresponding diagrams that can be used to sketch these for others to see. To show “what or who” we can use a portrait, “where” is depicted with a map, and “how” becomes a flowchart. With these starting points, knowing how to translate our thoughts into a Visual worthy of a Crossroads proposal is less outrageous. None of this is to suggest that we know what or how we are going to draw our ideas. At the very least, we’re excited to see where this could lead rather than fearful about our capabilities to do so.

serious thought


by John

For me, Crossroads is a joyous time. The reason for all the happiness is the fellowship. Together in one place are people from various backgrounds and perspectives with a common devotion to improving science education. This doesn’t happen by accident. We are very deliberate about who is invited and who ends up attending. And yet it often feels like magic. My memories of Crossroads, and the 2011 gathering in San Antonio in particular, is sprinkled with hearty laughter and warm embraces. Of course it is not all fun and games. The people who attend do so because they are primed to engage in deep discussions. I forget about the intensity of the Incubator sessions. Pictures like this one remind me about the importance of our conversations:
In this image are three people who, despite traversing varying pathways, come together to contemplate an issue at hand. Each individual is incredibly smart. I think of each as a very happy person and my memories of conversations with each has them smiling. However, in the right setting and under the right conditions, they are able to focus their attention with an unparalleled focus. I wonder where else we might see three people looking at a fourth person with this intensity. This is what it looks like when professionals are given the opportunity to extend themselves and direct their caring dispositions toward a colleague who is vexed by some aspect of the profession. Around this table are individuals who take issues seriously. They work hard at this. And to be on the receiving end is an amazing experience.

The magic of Crossroads is that we can work hard and play hard. We are very serious at times but also just as comfortable at laughing — quite naturally. In combination — the intensity of the work and the genuineness pleasure we have being in each other’s company — helps remind us that we are not alone. I can’t wait for it to happen again. This might be an important thing to remember: I should not wait but strive to find other ways to experience the joyous intensity of serious thought.