J. Michael Spector

Bob Dylan: The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense, take what you have gathered from coincidence (from “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”).

Mike Spector: Surely it would be a remarkable coincidence if the limits of my imagination happened to coincide with the limits of reality (unpublished notes).



With regard to planning my academic and professional career, the role of imagination has been incidental at best – my career has evolved as a result of happenstance and coincidence more than as a result of thoughtful or imaginative planning.

I started out in life much younger. My brother was an only child. This statement is false. Of course, and there is a politician who lies to all and only those persons who do not lie to themselves. The boundaries between sense and nonsense are not quite as clear as we might imagine, which is what makes exploring those boundaries so interesting.

My father was a Rabbi who came from a long line of Rabbis. His father emigrated to America from Lithuania by way of Canada; he served as a Rabbi in Pensacola, Florida and in Baltimore, Maryland. My mother was a southern lady who grew up in a small farming community in LA – Lower Alabama – Summerdale, to be slightly more precise. Her mother worked in a coffee packing plant during the week in Pensacola and on the farm in Summerdale on weekends. I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and was expected to carry on the Rabbinical tradition in our family, much to the relief of my brother and many cousins. From my father, I learned the meaning of being a Rabbi – it was primarily that of being a teacher – being the hand that guides, the ear that listens, the eye that reflects, the voice that comforts, the face that does not turn away.

At the last moment, I backed out of plans to become a Rabbi – primarily because I wanted to join the Air Force and fly airplanes. So, rather than go to the Yeshiva for a Rabbinical diploma, I went to the Air Force Academy and got an engineering degree. While there, I developed a strong interest in philosophy, surprising as that may seem.

Life rarely goes exactly as planned. My eyesight went bad, thankfully, and I became an Intelligence Officer rather than a pilot dropping weapons of mass destruction hither and yon. I found American involvement in Vietnam extremely distasteful and managed to separate myself from all military obligations early and honorably. After working for IBM as a junior systems analyst and serving as a volunteer teacher in Israel for a year, I decided to pursue my one academic love – philosophy. I managed to complete my PhD at the University of Texas in 1978. My dissertation was in the area of epistemology and concerned skepticism in ancient and modern philosophy – the beginning of many explorations of blurred boundaries.

I taught philosophy for a short while, but jobs in philosophy were quite scarce in those days. Philosophers are about as useful as truth at a political convention, and academic opportunities remained scarce, so I returned to working as a computer systems specialist for Cubic Corp. While there, I learned from Walt Davis an important heuristic for debugging the 400 plus programs that were running simultaneously in our real-time, multi-tasking aircrew training simulation system – namely, when stuck trying to solve a complex problem, make a single random change and see what happens. I got stuck a lot. The changes were hardly random, but the advice to manipulate one thing at a time and carefully observe outcomes proved incredibly useful and applicable to many situations.

I missed teaching and discovered there was a shortage of computer science instructors. I re-entered academia as an assistant professor of computer science at Jacksonville State University (JSU). My experience at IBM and Cubic Corp. and graduate work in artificial intelligence and software engineering at the University of Alabama-Birmingham served me well at JSU. I became involved with instructional computing and developed computer-based tutorials to allow students to quickly gain competence in Fortran and Pascal. I began volunteering at Kittystone Elementary School next to the university the year before my first daughter was scheduled to start there, believing that my being a volunteer would bring her some benefits in an otherwise not so spectacular Alabama primary school. My first year as a volunteer was devoted to helping teachers learn how to make use of a newly acquired Apple IIe lab. My efforts were a complete failure, mostly because I was far too ambitious and thought that I could treat school teachers much like my college computer science students. I decided to work with kids in my second year as a volunteer – third graders once a week after regular school hours learning Logo. This turned out to be a marvelous experience – one of my students won a state educational computing contest for a tornado simulation he had written in Logo.

In 1988 I decided to apply for a summer research opportunity at the Air Force Human Resources Laboratory (a.k.a., Armstrong Laboratory) in San Antonio, Texas. I was funded and spent the summer developing a proposal to use expert system technology to advise technical training developers how to design effective instruction. This resulted in a follow-on proposal that took me back to San Antonio in 1989 working with Scott Newcomb. I developed a proposal for a large-scale effort to explore how to apply intelligent computer technology to the design of instruction. This project was funded at a high level and became known as the Advanced Instructional Design Advisor (AIDA) project. The Air Force engaged me under the University Resident Researcher Program for two years and then hired me, and I became the Senior Scientist for Instructional Systems Research at Armstrong Laboratory. The AIDA project provided me the opportunity to work with such high quality research consultants as Bob Gagné, Dave Merrill, Bob Tennyson, Henry Halff, Martha Polson, Charlie Reigeluth and Harry O’Neil (name dropping is my favorite pastime, after eating and sleeping, that is).

As Department of Defense funding for training research was being cut, I decided it was time for a change of venue and applied for a Fulbright Research Fellowship to the University of Bergen in Norway in 1995. I worked with Pål Davidsen and Jose Gonzalez to construct a system dynamics model of the critical planning aspects of developing very large scale training systems. I liked Norway and system dynamics and was offered a position as Professor of Information Science and Head of the newly created Educational Information Science and Technology research program at the University of Bergen. Naturally I said, “Ja, takk” and immersed myself in the blurred boundaries of Scandinavia (it happens when you drink too much aquavit).

In January 2000, I accepted a position as Chair of Instructional Design, Development and Evaluation at Syracuse University to pursue research in complex skill acquisition and to be closer to my children. After four and a half years, I discovered that I was not happy as an academic administrator and accepted a research position at the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University in order to pursue my interest in developing a methodology to assess progress of learning and improved performance in solving complex and ill-structured problems.

I have discovered in my accidental explorations of blurred boundaries that asking a question is not the same as having a question. It is simple to ask a question, don’t you think? Just add a question mark and use a question word or phrase. Many ask questions never expecting a reply or intending to seek an answer. Having a question is a different matter altogether, as it implies being in a state of uncertainty – aware of a certain deficiency in one’s understanding and engaged in a search for a remedy for that deficiency. To have a question is to be engaged in a search for an answer or resolution to a problem. Having questions involves a certain amount of discomfort and even hard work. It is often easier not to have questions, especially when helping hands, reflective eyes, attentive ears and encouraging words are nowhere to be found.

What I have learned over the years? Not enough, that much is certain.

My philosopher professor, Stu Spicker, inspired me to think more carefully. Ed Allaire taught me a certain respect for the natural complexity of things. O. K. Bouwsma inspired me to write more carefully and left me with this quote: “Surely your life must show what you think of yourself” (unpublished journal notes).

I leave you with this thought: “We know less than we are normally inclined to believe.”

Mike Spector ([email protected])

For more information go to http://home.comcast.net/~spector007/