Do not intentionally cause unnecessary suffering

My plan was to talk about MOOCs for a while, and to get into some of the contentious aspects of them.  But I promised I would create a blog devoted to the issue of vegetarianism, one that would provide the context for a deeper discussion of issues.  So this is that blog.  I will spout off for a bit, but the real goal is for all of us to chime in with various points and perspectives … to think together … and to see where that leaves us.

The title of this post comes from that “moral compass” I mentioned in a previous response.  As a 40 some year old guy, my wife started to question what we were eating.  Her questioning came from both a health perspective (“is this stuff good for us, or even safe to eat?”) and from a moral perspective (“do we have the right to eat animals at all?”).  At first I would say I was just going along with things, but like everyone I had heard some stories about the process of “producing meat” and what I had heard was disturbing.  But also like most people, I managed somehow to stay as ignorant as I possibly could of all that because I knew the learning more might mean I would want to quit eating meat.  But my wife’s focus on what we were eating, mixed with some timely books (especially The Philosopher and the Wolf) meant my willful ignorance had to end, and I began reading and thinking with an open mind.

And so, back to the title.  When you read this stuff you need to try to think about it somehow.  A million questions start to surface.  Do we need to eat meat?  Do animals feel any pain and suffering?  Even if they do, do we have the right to treat them like any other commodity?  Do I think they should have all human rights, or just the right to a good life?  How do I know what I think?  What metric do I use to decide what I think is right.  The title became my touchstone.  While I think there are many good reasons not to eat meat (health, ethics, the environment to name three), if you ask me why I don’t eat meat I will tell you because (a) the meat industry causes pain and suffering to animals, (b) I do not need to eat meat … and therefore I will not intentionally contribute to unnecessary pain and suffering.

However that is my personal stance.  As I try to argue this point I try to keep a few things in mind.  First, meat eating in general is different (and isn’t different) from supporting factory farms.  That is, there are the deep ethical and philosophical questions about whether it is “right” for a human to eat animal flesh, and then there is the specific process by which the vast majority of animal flesh is “produced”.  It is possible, and perhaps even reasonable, for some people to feel it is OK to eat meat, while being firmly against factory farming practices.  The two issues can … and for the sake of argument perhaps should … be separated.  However, at least in the so-called “developed nations” the two issues really are not separate at all given that more than 98% of the meat we consume comes from factory farms.

When I try to discuss this issue I try very hard to NOT play the emotion card … I feel the argument is best kept at a rational level … that information is best communicated at that level.  And yet I do feel it is necessary that anyone who argues this either agrees by fiat, or by taking the time to find out, that factory farms are absolutely horrible.  It would be quite easy to give many examples of the horrors that happen in factory farms, and I think one can easily argue that for any animal in a factory farm, the best day of their life is the day of their death.  If examples are needed, I can provide them … I have taken the time to expose myself to this information although I hated every minute of it.  If you really do not believe that factory farms are that bad, then watch what you can of Meet Your Meat on YouTube.

OK, so let me open the floor with one analysis and one deep thought …

As I read through things (and I tried to be unbiased … heck, I liked my hamburgers and chicken as much as the next guy!) I tried to create a cost/benefit analysis.  What are the reasons to eat factory farmed meat, and what are the reasons not to?  Reasons for … (1) meat tastes good, (2) we can … we have the power to do so, and perhaps most importantly (3) we have strong habits, traditions and social forces making it easy for us to eat me … it’s uncomfortable to work against these forces.  Why should we not eat factory farmed meat?  Well (1) it causes unnecessary pain and suffering on a massive scale, (2) it is detrimental to our health … except maybe for some non-toxic fish, (3) factory farming causes more harmful emissions to our environment than all forms of transportation combined, (4) because factory farms must use massive amounts of antibiotics to keep their genetically mutated and generally insane animals alive for long enough they provide the perfect breeding ground for the next supervirus.  Honestly, there are more reasons not to eat meat … but those are the four I found most compelling.

Now the philosophy.  A Philosopher named John Rawls writes a lot about social justice.  He proposed a concept he calls the “original position”.  The idea is this … let’s say you are a human about to be born into the world, but you have no idea of what gender or race or social status you’ll be, or where in the world you will be born.  However you have the power to shape the world … to distribute wealth and rights … from that original position, would you eliminate horrors like slavery, or child warriors … or any other form of living that you wouldn’t want to suddenly find yourself born into?  Mark Rowlands extended this notion to include animals … you are again in the original position but this time you only know you will be dropped onto the planet as some life form … human or animal.  Would you allow factory farms to exist knowing you might be born into one?  Just an interesting perspective to think about.

OK, this has been a little rambly, but hopefully it will serve as a good basis for discussion.  Please, come at me!  🙂  Let’s just try our best to keep our issues clear.  It’s so easy to get things confused in this debate.  But that aside, let’s enjoy thinking together.

Cannibals?

Right, so I’m not really the sort who scripts what I say.  Yes, if I know I am going to be asked to speak or do an interview I do think about the issues I’d like to mention and I do a rough mental pre-organization; but then when the time comes I just talk.  Nobody, myself included, is really sure of what I will say.  I like to tell myself that this keeps things fresh and spontaneous feeling rather than over-rehearsed.  I also tell myself that if I had more time I would prepare more, I’m just too busy for that.  The truth is, it’s become a habit, and one that seems to work more often than not, with me only occasionally saying something I regret.  So I just trust it and go.

That was my mindset when I sat down to tape the “trailer” for my Coursera Introductory Psychology course.  I was to press record and talk for about 2 minutes or less, letting prospective students know why this course was going to be great.  So I pressed the button and started talking.  I made the point that for many centuries our minds had been hungry for information about chemistry, biology, geography and physics, using the scientific method to separate the good ideas that seem true from those that, while still good, seem not to predict data.  And yet it was only just over a 100 years ago that the mind turned its ravenous appetite on itself … and that’s when we became cognitive cannibals … minds that feed on minds!

When I replayed it that bit definitely caught my ear.  To me it sounded appropriately provocative, an implied analogy that concisely encapsulated the scientific study of psychology.   I had my Project Manager for the course listen to it, and she liked it too.  So we went live with it … and that’s when something else happened.

I had included my twitter feed on the Coursera page (@stevejoordens) and people who were tweeting me were using #CognitiveCannibals … they were embracing it as a description of who they now were … minds about to feed on minds!  This immediately reminded me of a similar incident.  A few months prior while being interviewed on The Agenda (a show on TVO featuring the rediculously smart Steve Paikin) he asked exactly how large my UTSC Introductory Psychology class was … I replied 19o0 students … he looked aghast at such a large number but I countered by saying “Ah, but it is a warm 1900!”.  From that point on, THAT class became “The Warm 1900” … we referred to each other that way, as co-members of the Warm 1900, and you know, it felt warmer!

One of the major potential issues in any large classes is developing a so-called community of learners, and in seeing the embrace of the name “Cognitive Cannibals” I was seeing one very simple factor related to community playing out … communities need unique names to rally around.  I should have known this well from Sherief’s clever research on prejudice (i.e., The Eagles vs. The Rattlers), but I think sometimes we “educational psychologists” can overthink things.  Every town becomes a town when it adopts a name … suddenly all those individuals in the town have a common link … one degree of separation as it were.  In both case above, the classes ceased to be another instance of an Introduction to Psychology class … they became a very specific class, a very specific community of learners; the Warm 1900 followed by the Cognitive Cannibals!  So much more human that “the students of Introductory Psychology”.

OK, so I ran with this a little.  I asked if someone might create a flag.  There are now about 5 contenders, but one of these caused minor concern.  It had a Jolly Roger inspiration, featuring a skull with it’s top off and it’s brain exposed … below the skull was a crossed knife and fork.  Brilliant!   OK, it was really more of a patch that a flag but I loved it, and still do.

But here is the interesting counterpoint to all this.  By attaching my terminology to the Jolly Roger schema a slightly more sinister vibe was created.  Someone raised the point that, generally speaking, humans frown on murder and on cannibalism, and the term Cannibal kind of implies both of these things.  Did we really want to refer to ourselves as Cannibals?  This is part of teaching to 30,000 people.  Of course I did not intend to – in any way – condone murder or the eating of human flesh by other humans (or even the eating of human flesh by animals … or humans eating animal flesh even, but that’s another story!)  I meant minds consuming information about minds, hence the use of the critical word “Cognitive”.  Every analogy is only so good, and often one can often look at it in a different light and see something darker.  I understand this dark side, and yet I love the community of learners vibe I see with every tweet containing #CognitiveCannibals.  What’s a MOOCster to do?

I thought about this for a while … would I come to regret not only saying the term “Cognitive Cannibal” but then turning it into a team jersey?  Will me Dean or Provost look at me one day and say “You called your class Cannibals?  And asked them to make a flag?  And produce an Anthem (right, I forgot to mention the anthem)?  And you did this with some amount of glee?”  Should I retreat and try to come up with something safer … less provocative?  Ultimately it seemed to me that the Cannibal was already out of the barn so to speak … many more people were embracing it than we upset and it is fun when not taken too seriously.  So I came up with a different idea … I could just write a blog post explaining my original intentions, why I think this actually makes for a better learning experience, and leave it there.  Now I want to get those flag/badges made into stickers that we somehow get to all the MOOCsters!  Heck, I may need another tattoo!  Ha!

A Word About MOOCsters and Mojo

I can tell you right now, the posts in my blog are going to be a bit of a drunkards walk.  There will be a common thread (or several interweaving threads) but the freedom of just writing means I’ll be following my random thoughts a little.  You’ve been warned!

So what’s on my mind now is the vibe I’ve been getting from the MOOC students, the MOOCsters.  I don’t know why but I’ve always been very lucky to have a great rapport with my students.  Somehow, even with new students in each class, we soon seem to be resonating with one another.  I think they get that I genuinely care, and that I truly feel privileged to have a “job” that involves stimulating their minds and provoking thought.  I, in turn, try hard to understand where they’re at, to see my class through their eyes.  And again, with just a week or two of interaction we somehow come to feel like a class, not a prof in front of a bunch of students, but a community of people learning together … there is that mojo!  This despite the fact that my classes typically number well into the hundreds of students (i.e., 300 – 1900).

Going into my MOOC experience I couldn’t help but wonder if these students would be different.  They certainly were not going to be the 17 – 19 year olds I am accustomed to.  Would English proficiency be a major problem?  Would there be a sense of distance and coldness given the medium?  Most important, that vibe that I so feed off, the resonance I can typically feel between myself and my students, the mojo, would that be gone?  If so, would this course lose the fun I usually feel while teaching?

Well, two weeks into the MOOC and I am happy to say as loudly as I can, I love these MOOCsters!  At some level I shouldn’t have been surprised.  They come because they want to learn.  Yes they are a varied group.  Some have plenty of time to spend on the course and don’t mind the sort of complexities I tend to bring into their world (more on that later!) whereas others are trying to fit my class into an already busy life, and this latter group finds ambiguity and change more difficult to deal with.  Some are highly proficient in English, others not so much.  But despite all that the level of respect, mutual support, and community that I feel two weeks into this course is inspiring to me.  The mojo is there, despite the interactions being totally online, and this is really nice to know.

So maybe I will leave this blog on that point.  MOOCsters rock, especially my Cognitive Cannibals!  They appreciate the opportunity made available to them, they are engaged in the experience, and while they sometimes criticize specific aspects of the course (as they should!) they are consistently respectful and friendly.  In subsequent posts I’ll explore some of the worries over MOOCs, mostly coming from within academia, but it is important to stress that the basic premise of MOOCs is to provide a quality learning experience for free to people who might not otherwise have access.  This is no shadow promise.  It is real, it is happening, and the students really appreciate it.  And from my perspective, it’s certainly fun!

Stepping into the land of MOOC

A while ago I began hearing about this new world of education called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  One professor teaching tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of students online, at no cost, with the apparent goal of opening up high quality education to all who might enjoy and benefit from it.  Being one who already appreciated the philosophy of information sharing, as embodied in technologies like Wikipedia, this sounded really fantastic.  Moreover, I must openly admit, that being the sort of professor who truly enjoys teaching large classes, this really felt like something I wanted to try.  Can one effectively teach so many students?  What is the experience like?  What does one learn about teaching in this sort of extreme context?

Of course I then heard some of the concerns.  Clearly there is more to this than the free open sharing of education.  Someone hopes to make some money off of this somehow.  Too many investors are pouring too much money into MOOCs, and the platforms used to host them, to deny that this phenomenon will only be sustained if there is some sort of business model (or models) that reward those involved.  What are those models?  Will those models result in dramatic changes in the public education system?  If so, will those changes have a negative impact, or could the appearance of MOOCs actually provide a long needed impetus for change in the University and College system?

In the context of all this I was asked to submit a proposal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to mount an Introductory Psychology MOOC on the Coursera platform.  Being one who has extreme difficulty saying no to any new opportunity I couldn’t resist.  I submitted a proposal and with great administrative support I won it (thanks Laurie and crew!), and as I type today we are four days into the eight week course.  Four fascinating days filled mostly with really great vibes.

Given this is such a new world for me I decided I’d write a digital equivalent of a travel log.  Actually I meant to begin it about a week ago, as I was anticipating the MOOC.  However, one thing I learned is that it takes a lot of time and thought to get a MOOC ready to go … there was no time last week for blogging!  But now things to be a little more under control, so this entry stands as my introduction.  Yes my feet are already planted firmly on MOOC land, I have arrived, and the students – about 30,000 of the 58,000 registered – have arrived, and I am sincerely amazed at how comfortable I feel, despite the fact that this place is full of Cannibals!  Ah, but that’s for the next chapter.

So my goals in this blog are to recount this particular journey while also highlighting some of my views on MOOCs and public education reform along the way.  I have invited my #CognitiveCannibals (those would be my students) to follow and comment on the blog, so don’t be surprised if they chime in along the way … I hope all of you feel free sharing your perspectives and ideas as we go.  OK, next step, giving a brief overview of Week 1 …