Long Line: Back to Time

This post is part of a series of posts pulled from a piece of writing I completed in November 2012. For more information on this series, see this post.

Context | Looking Back | Transformation | Looking Back at the Looking Back | Questions | On ethics | Letting Go of Nothing | Taking on Subject and Objects | On meaning making | Why the language of causality trouble me | Conceptual versus Empirical | Futuring | Temporality and Time | Brief Note | Back to Time | What to do with the Past | Some tools to help us be | An example from my past | Avoiding Labels | The educational turn | Being and curriculum | Curriculum of Being | Curriculum Futuring | On dispositions as ways of being | Being and pedagogy | Being and technology | Being and the body | References

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Back to Time

I want to use the three “big” distinctions of time to talk about our relationship to it: past, present, future. These words come with all the trappings of assumptions and conversations past, but they are the words we have. At the risk of sounding too “new age,” all we have is right now, the present. Any occurring we experience of the past or the future is truly (actually?) experienced in the present. Remembering the past, in the present; imagining the future, in the present. It might seem funny to reiterate the obvious, but I think that is why it needs to be reiterated: it is so obvious that we forget it, overlook it and take it for granted. We think of and speak about “the past” and “the future” as if these were physical locations in space, but they are not. The past and future live in our present speaking, thinking, hearing. In this way I appreciate Serres’ folded time: past, present, and future moulding into one, folding one on top of the other.

Steve Zaffron and David Logan in The Three Laws of Performance* state three “laws” (I am not comfortable with the language of law) and then expand their thoughts into an entire book. These statements are: (1) How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them; (2) How a situation occurs arises in language; and (3) Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people. To use these statements I need to acknowledge that the language of “perform” or “performance” are troubling but I do not yet have a substitute for them. When my colleague and I teach our student activism summer course we rewrote the language to (hopefully) make the statements more accessible to teenagers: (1) Our perceptions and assumptions determine how we live. Our perception is our reality; (2) How life is perceived lives in language; and (3) Future-based language transforms how life is perceived by people.#

These three statements are useful in talking and thinking about our relationship to time. The first (quite radical) idea that we need to explore is this: We are already always inventing and living into a future that is determined by ourselves, by our language, and - this is the crux - by our being. This is where I do not believe language and being can be collapsed. Language points to being with its flashlight beam, but being scurries back to the sidelines. One of the first reactions to this statement usually revolves around “telling” or “predicting” the future. Not so, and not even close.

There are four ways we can “be” in relationship to our future: (1) there is the hoped for future; (2) the planned for future; (3) the inevitable future; and (4) the probable, almost certain future. The first two are fairly obvious. We can hope for a Christmas present or hope our children get good grades. We can also plan for a holiday or plan a meeting. Both of the first two ways are ways of being towards a particular future. The inevitable future primarily concerns those things that we know will happen: in the future we will have to pay taxes. Eventually, inevitably, we will die. The fourth way of being with our future, the probable, almost certain, is what gives access to what has been earlier described as “occurring” or “determined by” or “gives”. The probable, almost certain future is not exactly what will happen, but is most likely what will happen if we continue to act, think, speak in the same way that we have been acting, thinking, and speaking. There is another “new age” phrase that is useful in making this distinction: “Living as if.” Even as I use that phrase I want to back away from it but leave it in case it is helpful.

A concrete example is in order. Consider the young female student who declares (purposefully choosing these words), “I am bad at math!” For this student, she is bad at math. In the speaking, in the declaring, she is bad at math. Imagine as she utters the words walls coming down around her enclosing her in a room plastered with wallpaper emblazoned with “BAD AT MATH.” Returning to the discussion of futures, how does a math quiz occur for a student who is bad at math? (I must be clear: I am not saying that the young lady is bad at math, she has stated that.) What may look like future-telling is actually an example of the probable, almost certain future for the student. If she approaches and is “bad at math” with her math quiz, what is most likely going to happen? What will probably result? Jumping back to the iPad research study: Given the question, there are only a limited number of probable answers (futures) to the question regarding iPad influence on learning.

But, one may argue, the past tells us that the student (let’s call her Julie) is bad at math. Her math history (in terms of test scores, teacher observations, even her mother says so!) is dismal. For effort, let’s go through the other futures for Julie. She will most likely hope for a good score on the math quiz, or she will hope for the math quiz to be over soon. Julie can plan for the math quiz by organizing her study time and plan for how she is going to address each of the questions. The inevitable future? Julie will have to take the math quiz. And, again, the probable, almost certain future for Julie and the math quiz? Because she is bad at math, she will do poorly on the math quiz.

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* Zaffron, S. & Logan, D. (2011). The three laws of performance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
** The substitutes that we used worked for the time, but I am still not completely settled with this language.

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