Dr. H. Guy Bensusan

Former Senior Faculty Associate for Interactive Instruction Television and Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies

Northern Arizona University

 


THE ESCALATOR

"Escalator" is what I call the several successive writings which students write to self-propel, direct and pace their learning process in the Humanities courses I offer. Each student selects an arts and culture topic to work on, and ascends through the connected levels on this learning stairway --- the first one prepares the ground for the second, which then builds upon the first one and anticipates the third --- and so on.

As metaphor, the escalator is composed of steps which are climbed through the efforts of the students, singly and collaboratively, while the sequence carries them to ever higher levels of awareness and comprehension. A visual presentation of this idea is on the back cover of the textbook. The separate steps, going up, are:


					6b. Reflect
					6a. RESOLVE

				5b. RECAST
				5a. Schools

			4b. Refine
			4a. PROBE

		3b. FRAME
		3a. Ladder

	2b. VERIFY
	2a. Consult

1b. IMAGINE
1a. Course Model (e.g. Hexadigm)

This approach places learning, and the responsibility for that learning, directly upon each student. The escalator serves as both structure and process, which helps turn data into knowledge, concepts, relationships, interpretations, constructs, and an ever-growing comprehension of meanings and perspectives.

The escalator also provides foundation and format for class discussion over how to make sense of facts and ideas (from text and other assignments, which are to be read at least two days before class), in order that discussions be more thoughtful and reflective than mere hip-shoot reactions.

While the escalator is non-traditional, it is reasonable; the focus is upon information, then components, then context and then sources, plus its many levels of meaning, and possible interpretations. The system was developed over several years with constant input from students, and has worked well with learners from many majors across the curriculum.

As a note of caution, students report initial frustration, anxiety and confusion at the beginning; some may drop the course. Those who stay say they reach a breakthrough into self-direction by doing the assignments one after another, weekly. By midterm, most of them state that new realizations and feelings of confidence have fallen into place.

They also say this is a struggle which THEY must go through and that as teacher, my role is to be helpful, patient and encouraging. There is a transformation which the students experience; they no longer expect the teacher to provide all answers in lectures, direct their assignments from the pulpit, choose test questions and set up grading competition. Instead they expect the teacher to be available when they need help, always remaining accessible, but otherwise staying out of their way! I am very comfortable with this, and therefore have established the portfolio system to allow this process and self-direction to occur.

The PORTFOLIO is a file folder into which each piece of work is placed when it is due. Each assignment is in sequence, and once having placed it in the portfolio, is always accessible for further study, reflection and revision.

In other words, the assignment can always be upgraded; you can turn in the highest levels of thinking, writing and accomplishment by the end of the semester. Only at the exit point will it be graded and measured against the initial piece of writing. We are interested in growth and improvement, not grade spread --- there are no limits to the number of A's which can be awarded.

Two additional considerations relate to the distance aspects of this learning experience. Since students are located physically in more than one classroom, both on campus and around the state (as well as at home through cable viewing [and often video-recording]), there is the possibility of assignments going astray. Therefore, it is imperative to photocopy every piece of work so that nothing gets lost.

You will keep the originals and turn in the copies. Please make sure that your name, ID number, course title, assignment number or step, and your location is on the work you turn in --- with the number of students and locations I keep track of, I MUST know this information. And most specifically, the copy of the assignment will be turned into the classroom operator (Broadcast Operations Technician) at the site you are enrolled or present in, ON THE DATE DUE.

They will be kept in that folder by the operator, in a file drawer or box along with all the other folders from that class group. You will have access to it as you wish to update or upgrade your work, and toward the end of the semester, when I want the portfolios turned in, they will be transferred to me under university procedures. It is important to recognize that if you choose to send it in yourself, you also must take responsibility for tracking it. When NAU performs this transfer, the responsibility is official.

This method requires attention to a different form and manner of learning. It requires continual, regular effort and upkeep. You will log assignments in with your classroom operator, and you must be diligent and constant in taking sequenced steps one by one. When you do these things, you cannot help but succeed. The act of performing the tasks and the practice of revisiting in and of themselves leads you to awareness of multiple factors and cognizance of how to apply and validate them.

In other words, you will train yourself how to think and function in the Humanities; you will suddenly break through into new levels of realization when data, ideas, meanings and relationships have soaked in sufficiently; you will learn from and contribute to others; you will see the application of these methods in your other courses, and you will become quite confident in your own ability to solve problems in learning, connecting and validating. When you get to the other end, you will also wonder why it took so long to arrive at this absolutely obvious spot --I still do!!!

While we have listed six steps of the escalator, the truth is, each step has two parts. The total picture might be visualized like this --- we will rise to greater heights of comprehension.

The semester is fifteen-weeks --- there are twelve steps, which allows one step per week, with all work completed by week thirteen. We will never think in terms of "Completed Draft" or "Final Project:" instead, it will always be your "Work in Progress." Whatever you have done by the due date is what will go into the portfolio, and you can always go back and add to it or change it.

Then in week thirteen, portfolios will be delivered to me and I will have two weeks to go through them, to get back to you for clarifications or updatings, and to grade them. Meanwhile, in class we will have time for individual presentations of projects, ideas and reflections upon what has been learned.

On the lighter side, we can also joke about the Twelve Step Rehabilitation Program which students have gone through from being addicted to traditional class note-taking, tests and dependency upon the authority of the podium. However, in class on the first day, you do NOT have to stand up and say, "My name is John and I suffer from "dependency." [grin] :-)

In summer we have the same number of class hours (40), but the course meets daily for 105 minutes during 23 days --- it IS intense, but students are only taking one other course, so there is time to focus. Due dates come more often: you do the same thing but faster, while learning become even more profound. In summer you will turn in an assignment every two or three days.

Regardless of whether you enroll for a semester or a summer session --- the process works. HAVE FAITH IN THE PROCESS; give it your best effort, do the work in sequence as each stage comes up, and you WILL get there.

THE STEPS

1a. Model. We start with the central course model. For regional arts and culture courses this means we read the chapters on the HEXADIGM and APPLYING THE HEXADIGM. We discuss the six interrelated model parts in class (Cultural Sequences, Mutual Influences, Regional Diversities, Modernizing Technologies, Expanded Comprehensions and Revised Interpretations). Each student will write an initial statement describing his or her understanding of the model and how to apply it. This writing is the first assignment.
1b. Imagine. One page in the Apply chapter contains some 75 arts and culture topics. Each student will select one topic and make application of each of the parts of the HEXADIGM, including sub-components which will emerge as we discuss the process in class.

CHOOSE WHATEVER LEAPS OFF THE PAGE AT YOU; TURN IN A PAGE WITH THAT CHOICE CLEARLY PRINTED, PLUS YOUR NAME, ID NUMBER AND CLASSROOM LOCATION TO THE SITE OPERATOR, WHO WILL FAX IT TO ME. (You will not have time to change topics after the first week.)

For instance, if you choose architecture, work through the parts of the Hexadigm on what the first people built, and why, and how, and out of what, etc., and then on to the second layer of people, the third, and so forth.

Then move to imagine how mutual influences would have worked between the layers of incoming people, one group at a time. And then to Regional Diversities, and so on. Go as far as you can with this, because the greater detail and formulating of questions which you invent and imagine, the easier your research will be.

There is one rule, however. You do NOT look up anything --- nor go to the library, encyclopedia or any other source. The initial writing MUST come out of your head and imagination. The purpose here is: (1) to get you THINKING analytically and creatively, (2) to show you how much general residual knowledge and built-in awareness and conditioning are already inside of you, (3) to show how much you can rely upon yourself and what you already know, and (4) to know how important it is to DESIGN your research BEFORE you see what the so-called experts, whose books are in the library, have to say on the subject.

If you push your imagination and thinking dutifully, you will be surprised at how much you can elevate yourself to take control over your own learning, rather than simply being at the mercy of what you find at the library. Then you write your IMAGINE report (or sets of questions and assumptions, or however you feel best about doing it) based on all the parts of the HEXADIGM and place it in your portfolio, as well as turning it in for your file with the classroom operator. This writing is the second assignment.

2a. Consult. Having constructed the IMAGINE part, you now exchange reports, outlines, or sets of questions with someone else in your classroom. It would even be better if several of you did this collaboratively. The idea is to compare Hexadigm- imagined applications. As you read what each of the others have put together, several areas of common ground will occur to you. You will also gain new thoughts and additions to what you have already written and extensions into related ideas. You will gain from others and they from you, with the result that all of your work will be improved, and you will have additions for your previous report, which you may revise and update to prepare you for the next step. This writing is the third assignment.
2b. Verify. Now you turn to some sources of information to find out how your imaginative thinking and collaborative expansion holds up when you get to the data bases. You can go to the Library or to Museums or seek out experts on our faculty or surf the net or make an inquiry to a listserver which deals with that topic or with that region. Use whatever source or sources of information you can think of, and as many as you want.

Think in terms of many voices, many sources, because it is obvious that a European author will have a different slant than one from the Americas, and the same thing is true with gender and races. It is also true of scholarly fields, since artists, historians, anthropologists and engineers have been trained to look for different things. Thus, few authors will present the story completely, or in exactly the same way as others, and you will even find interesting contradictions in which "facts" are used and how they are used.

You will want to think about your different sources in order to get a handle on "where each of them is coming from" (location, date, slant and mindset). If you have trouble finding what you want in indexes, computer query-tools, or encyclopedias, you may want to consider what words you are using to explore with, rethink your topic and resort to some alternative search terminologies. What it is called now may not be what it was called a long time ago or in a different place and culture.

At this point, write up what you have learned about the places where your "imagine" composition ran parallel to your "verify" information, where it did not, and what sections of your research-design you could find no information on at all. Then, to really drive it home, consult with several classmates and again look for the common ground among you. This writing is your fourth assignment.

3a. Ladder. The next step takes you into another analytical model beyond the Hexadigm, the Ladder, which we will already have discussed in class. Instead of moving deeper into our topic, we will move laterally to provide a broader base of vision, and also to consider different levels. We explore the various rungs of comprehension from the initial reactive response, to techniques and components of the arts-culture topic (what is it made from, where are the materials from, how is the structure used, who uses it, when, what shape does it have, how does it face, is it unique or typical, etc.?)

The subsequent rungs deal successively with cultural contexts, the various sources of information, who authors are, their purposes, the various viewpoints expressed, and the schools of interpretation most typically used to explain your topic. Related to this is the Bias model, which asks you to examine the biases of the authors you are using, but also to look at your own. After examining these two approaches to thinking, consult again with your classmates to find where you are seeing commonalities, and write these up. This is the fifth assignment.

3b. Frame. By now you know a lot about your topic and probably from several points of view --- but since nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, or is totally isolated from other areas of activity, or without contexts of several kinds (place, politics, religion, economy, outside influences and so on), it is at this point that you will look into the surrounding situation in which your topic exists.

For instance, if you are dealing with architecture, you might also want to explore the population-base-changes over long term. At what point did climate changes perhaps occur, or transportation patterns which would affect the entry of new people with new wants and hopes, as well as new materials. Or, perhaps newspapers and magazines (and later film and tv) would bring about a new consciousness of what was being built elsewhere: or the nation will become independent and not want its new national public buildings to resemble the older colonial style.

There will be differences in the rate of change as we come closer to the twenty-first century, as well as more awareness about what other people have built elsewhere, plus a longing to return to some significant past time, and even to escape our own times, or look forward to a new and different future.

Materials for construction will also change, opening up new possibilities in stuctures, prefabrication, new combinations --- for example, the arrival of sawmills in the adobe-land of the Southwest made possible the addition of porches and verandas called the "Territorial" style. Structural steel and glass would have an impact in isolated areas, as importing became easier with the development of faster transportation, better highways/freeways, bigger 18-wheelers, and so on.

This contextual approach is designed for three purposes: (1) to keep the topic study in balance, (2) to help you keep from missing important points and considerations, and (3) to prepare you for the next step, which is to see whether the authors of the information you use were or are thinking broadly. Write your thoughts, show them to others, revamp, and put them in the portfolio. This is your sixth assignment.

4a. Probe. Here we begin the second half of the course, and doing so at rather important levels of critical understanding. Up to now we have been learning about the topic itself, and our approach has been rather factual: the who, what, where, when, how, and even the why and so-what levels. But it is also apparent that we have not learned EVERYTHING we want to know, and some of the authors are not convincing, or don't tell the story in the same way as other authors, or leave out whole areas which occurred but have not yet been written about.

So now we will PROBE into our authors. We know by instinct that some are better or more complete than others, and we have a feeling that this one can be trusted, but that one cannot, or this part seems more reasonable than that one, or the reasons given by one author are easier to accept than others. It becomes obvious that two factors are going on: one concerns the biases and mindsets of the authors (which may in part be a function of time and place) while others concern your own biases and mindset about this subject: because as objective and open-minded as we may think we are, we all have your own pushbuttons and opinions.

Of course, while "authors" means the people who wrote the books and magazine articles we used, in the broader sense "authors" also refers to anyone we gather information from. It could be the contractor at the building site we were looking at, the unsigned encyclopedia article we read, the person who responded to our web inquiry, or the local person you interviewed at the historical site, as well as the museum attendant or historian.

What should we ask to help us determine the value and reliability of this information? There are at least two factors here, INTERNAL and EXTERNAL. The internal ones deal with the message itself --- it will have a "feel" to it, seeming narrow or deep, broad or chaotic, and so on. It will also have a quality of being enthusiastic, and/or positive, or demeaning, or one-sided, or bored, or any other number of characteristics.

It will use words which will carry a sense of plus, neutral or minus --- these will be the adjectives, the images, sometimes the comparisons or similes, all of which (as you start looking beyond the facts) will let you know where the author stands. These will also (if we are looking ahead to the Schools and Recast levels) provide insight into the mindsets of the authors and where they fit into the broader spectrum of "Ways of Explaining things" --- some will be more political, others more economic, yet others more religious.

One example might be in the manner in which the specific architecture is accounted for: did the building come about because it had a GREAT ARCHITECT? Or was the Institution which hired the architect the force which drove the project, or maybe the author focuses instead on many contributing factors. What you will often see is the spectrum between "mono-causation" and "multi-causation" --- there are steps in-between that talk about (1) "timeliness" or the "natural evolution" of events, or (2) these factors were more important than those, or (3) the "new research now shows that was caused by factors not previously written about."

Whatever the thrust, patterns emerge and trends occur. For instance, we used to explain things as being socially-conditioned; a couple of generations of social policies at the federal and state level emerged from these. Now that biology has become the queen of the sciences (or should it be king?), we are taking another approach and it is likewise affecting law and social policy. When authors have these beliefs, the "objectivity" of their writing is affected.

Externally, the job is simpler --- when was the book published and what was known about this subject at that time? Where was the book published, and how close was the author to the event? Did the author have direct knowledge or indirect? What chance did the author have to become expert in the subject, and so on? Was the author a national, a minority, male or female, educated, religious in an evangelical denomination???? All these items will affect the writing.

You might be able to find reviews of the book written at the time to see how it was received. Or you might put an inquiry on a listserve which deals with the subject. The point will be to gain some reasoned substantiation as to whether this or that author is more credible on the topic. And, you will want to balance your personal feeling about it with "harder" data --- although the tough truth is that in the long run you will have to rely on your own judgment. Just because THE EXPERT on the subject does not agree with you does not mean that YOUR judgment is not sound.

When you're done with this exercise and have written it up, shared it with classmates and put it in the portfolio, you are ready to move ahead again. This is your seventh assignment.

4b. Refine. Here you will ask how the previous exercise has altered the way you are considering the topic you are researching. You have written several approaches to your topic, and you now need to integrate and sort and prioritize which parts are more important and which you will either lump together under one catchall, or even leave out. Here is where your classmates can help you and vice versa. This is a smoothing out exercise, and your eighth assignment.
5a. Schools. While you are REFINING, you also want to become very familiar with the Schools of Interpretation in the final three chapters on tools. You will see some basic divisions (purists versus contextualists, for instance) and the continual argument over internal versus external causation. There's also the universalist versus regionalist or individualist views, but the main thrust will be the evolution of schools of thought or interpretation from the few to the several, to the ever-expanding many. Even these are now continuing to join, merge, subdivide, so that the ways of explaining things become ever more complex.

In part, this is a product of the accelerating velocity of cultural change in which we live. This takes us back to the Hexadigm. Before modernizing technologies (beginning in 1800 with steam engines), it was generally assumed that "things will remain the same, generation after generation." Now it is obvious that we live in a changing world where the typical greeting is, "What's new?"

Technologies in combination open up alternatives never before seen --- look at the class you are in. In whatever way we may have explained things before, we will have new ways of doing so ahead of us. Alvin Toffler called it FUTURE SHOCK, in that too much is happening too fast and we do not know how to cope with it. That leads to what our textbook refers to as the Four R's --- residuation, rejection, revival, revision. We either go on as before, turn away and seek some new niche, try to find a comfortable yesterday, or make fusions and combinations.

Thus, as you consider the many Schools, how might a member of each have thought about or explained your subject? Here is your report for the portfolio. One group would say, "It is the geography," another that "it is genetics," another "economics", and another "the will of God."

There are many mindsets out there --- which ones are you comfortable with, and why not the others? After all, being educated is more than having knowledge; it is a matter of knowing how that knowledge fits into the larger scheme of things and also how various groups of people interpret life.

Beyond that, being educated also means the ability to perceive and comprehend how the world looks to others who do not agree with you. You do not have to accept it, but you cannot claim to have understanding until you can state the other person's position --- and even when you have put it into words, will you not have to inquire of the "other" to see if you have it right? This writing is your ninth assignment.

5b. Recast. This exercise will help and can be much fun. Having already pondered how different Schools of Thought will interpret your topic, and having seen that different academic fields have diverse ways of thinking and organizing, plus having noticed the difference in what various ethnics, races, nationalities and genders will think, do something fun and practical. Pick half a dozen different points of view, create characters to speak the parts, and write a dialogue or argument in which several points of view get thoroughly aired.

This can actually be the high point of your study, since you will already know about the topic, and now you become the creative writer who establishes the play or prose in which your work is examined and argued about. It will demonstrate how thoroughly you have immersed yourself in your topic and its facets, and will have great meaning for the rest of the class.

If read aloud in class, it may even evoke the highest level of discussion which we will have achieved during the semester, because all the learners will comprehend what you are doing, where you are coming from and what your debate implies. This writing is your tenth assignment.

6a. Resolve. Now you have reached the end of this portion of your study; you have acquired knowledge about your topic and have shared it with the rest of us through class discussion. You have also seen the topic from many more positions than the mere factual one, having entered the world of critical evaluation and multi-causational interpretation. More than that, you have practiced and therefore acquired a set of useful tools and the skills and practice of applying them. You also will have gained the insight that what we have done in class is transferrable and applicable in your other courses and across the curriculum.

You have worked, had fun and your brain is now functioning on different levels. Look back to where you started and compare it with where you are now. What have you learned about your topic? This will NOT be your final report, because you are probably hooked and will continue to think about these matters. But this will be your last semester-writing on the topic you selected. So, put it together --- emphasize where you are now in comparison to where you were before, and put it in the portfolio. This is your eleventh assignment.

6b. Reflect. Turn your attention again to the many models and tools we have used during the semester. What worked best for you? Was it the same all the way through, or did you change as you went along? If so, how? Were you more comfortable with the Hexadigm, the Ladder, the Bias or others? Or did you shift from one to another? And more important, WHY were you comfortable with the one you chose? How did that help you learn about yourself?

If you were to continue with another, different course in Regional Arts and Culture, would you deal with it in the same way? What would you do differently and why? What might you want done differently and why? What suggestions or advice might you have for the first-time student in this method? This is your twelfth assignment --- Hooray!

EPILOGUE: And now you are done with the content part. It is the thirteenth week; you have finished your written work, turned it in, and I am reading the portfolios. In class we will focus on what we have learned, sharing as we go, listening to and discussing presentations, and evaluating what happened and how you responded.

PS. Please make sure that anything you send to me is properly identified with your name, ID number, course and classroom location. This minimizes problems when things go astray --- which they do!

I hope you enjoy the learning experience, Guy Bensusan


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Materials on this page are 1997, Dr. H. Guy Bensusan.