Bob Dylan: The highway is for gamblers,
better use your sense, take what you have gathered from coincidence
(from Its 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happened to coincide with the limits of reality (unpublished
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
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 ONeil (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
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,
dont 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 ones 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
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.