A tweet from someone (sorry there goes my weak citation) led my to Mike Wesch’s Learning Worth Crying About:

For those of you who watched my most recent talk, Learning as soul-making, you know that I have become interested in moments of profound transformation and growth among students that I call “Learning worth crying about.” I came to this interest in the pursuit of a question that most of us professors care about, “How can I teach critical thinking?” And after realizing after some time that it is not so easily taught, I focused on how it might be learned. And after realizing it is not just an “it” to learn but a process to be practiced I focused on creating problems and projects through which it could be practiced. And then after realizing that it was not just a process but a complete change of being I started diving into the literature on student and human development and now sit buried (almost literally) in a pile of books on my desk which I voraciously read day after day trying to understand this most beautiful and complex process of how it is that we become who we are.

He has been seeking insights into this via surveys to the numerous (did he say like 10,000?) students he has taught over the years. Mike asks at the end for people to share their own big moments. I went right the place and time of my own (which will materialize somewhere below), but spent a well worth hour listen to his talk:

There are familiar pieces, the snake in New Guinea, the viral YouTube videos, but I had not followed as much his most recent work Smile Because it Happened— rather than previous Digital Ethnography projects of studying online culture, his students immersed themselves into a culture by living a semester in a retirement home.

But in the video above, Mike is digging into the importance of teaching beyond all the things we are used to addressing, to a whole new plane of human meaning. He even jokes about “bow do you assess soul-making? Is there a multiple choice assessment tool?”

This calls out at me, because after having spent 20 years in higher education in the educational technology space, with my scattered opportunities the last few years, I find what I really seek is to teach, and attempt some of that soul making “stuff”. I have had some whiffs of that experience, and think I can do more.

An obstacle to getting there is the very thing I left behind that day in the canyon.

Three letters.

“P”, “h”, and “D”.

But leaving those behind was essential to where I am now.

It’s as they say… complicated. And will unroll as a long blog post. If you want more dog stories or web stuff, click next.

I watched Mike’s presentation, while searching through my boxes of old photo albums, field notebooks, even my address books trying to find the context of that period in Autumn, 1991. But to get there, I have to wind the story clock back a bit further.

Way back. I liked school the learning from memorable teachers. I pretty much figured out early how to skate through, how to take tests and write papers that teachers reacted to positively. Im high school I found I absorbed enough in class to ace tests, and scratched my head when hearing my class mates talk about studying all night for exams.

University education brought more work and effort, but it was on the same trajectory; I had the methods down. As an undergraduate I felt more blended in the crowd, but getting to Arizona State University as a Masters student in Geology (1987) it finally felt less about passing tests, but still, the performing on writing still counted a lot.

The department was small, and it was inevitable you got to know most everybody, I camped with them on field exercises, played softball on the weekends, climbed mountains, snuck into abandoned mines looking for minerals, drank beer at professors house. I finished a masters, and not really seeing much excitement in seeking a job, fell into the flow of continuing in the PhD program.

Why not become an academic? I did not know much else.

A new professor came to the department, one with a big reputation, researcher. Despite the reputation, she was very approachable as a teacher, and had that quality of giving students a lot of direct feedback. Her first class really got me interested enough to ask her to be my advisor. I cannot say I had a strong sense of a research direction, but that’s what advisors help with?

In out conversations, she stressed a lot of things I had not heard before- the importance of writing to be understood, the role of a scientist as a public communicator. But she also shared some of her personality in a fashion I had not experienced before- the challenges she faced as a woman in a mail dominated field, details of a marriage breaking up, things with her children.

Looking back, I see myself at 26 as so uninformed about life and relationships and experiences, and did not even now much of this concept of sharing one’s vulnerabilities. So it seemed somewhat odd, but more than that, it was a huge amount of trust I felt put into me, a kind I had not experienced in academia before.

Two years go by. I focus more into a research project, we spend a year it seems writing it up for the major journal in the field. It is published, I am sure a lot on the stature of my advisor. I write up proposals in the way ones, is supposed to do, and I pass my oral exams.

I am about halfway to getting a PhD, I just need to do another research project, and write it up. And its through my advisor’s connections in the Spring of 1991 I have lined up an internship with colleagues at Los Alamos, where I will do some field mapping and some computer simulations (it has to do with the how explosive volcanic ash clouds move through topographic channels).

Los Alamos is, to generalize, a weird kind of place. Let’s just say it has a high concentration of very intelligent scientists on a high remote plateau, with the atmosphere of high powered government funded research. So it was somewhat a relief I spent a lot of the time out in the canyons, trying to understand some of the history of the large volcanic eruptions that created the landscape there.

I did not manage to find many photos- I was shooting mostly slide film in those days, and I dumped many of the slides after I left geology. But the landscape looked a lot like this photo in nearby Bandelier National Monument


And here is where my memory confuses me.

It gets to a point where I get very frustrated with (a) not at all understanding the geology I was trying to understand (self doubt about my skills); (b) realizing I was moving down a road of being a specialist in a field where there were maybe 100 colleagues around the world (over-specialized); and mostly (c) losing all of the drive and passion I had for Geology that was there since 1982.

I do know for sure that one day all of this uncertainty about my future, the loss of confidence, had my crying in a lonely canyon in New Mexico. It was maybe the second time in my life (I had some fairytale childhood) of deep internal crisis.

Other things where in the mix. Before coming to Los Alamos in June, the woman I was dating had ended our relationship (maybe the third time had dissolved up until then) (we then rekindled while I was in New Mexico) (we later got married) (we much much later got divorced).

The woman from whom I was renting a room in Los Alamos got more than landlady friendly, but when I pulled away because of my interest in my Arizona relationship– well it got really weird, then ugly. I literally grabbed my stuff in two hours and left two weeks before I was done in Los Alamos, then staying with another friend in town.

So this 6 month experience to me has this giant cloud of uncertainty, but I think my memory is weighed heavily on that one day of canyon crying. It turns out I have a lot of documentation– I found my field notes, at least this book was labeled Bandelier Notes II, and has some 170 pages of sketches, measurements, and notes like this:


I imagined I would find among my section descriptions and calculations of maximum lithic fragment size I would find some mention of my internal struggles.

But none is there. I even can patch together timelines, as I have my old calendar books. No heart pourings there, but I can at least trace comings and goings (thought I have no idea why on October 21 I was contacting someone about a haunted house)


Yet, it is cemented in mind this day of crying in a canyon. It was likely in August or September, the fieldwork wound down once it started getting cooler. I know it happened because of what made my life pivot.

You see the woman I was dating in Arizona was getting her degree in counseling, but had a perception of understanding beyond just a school program. I know I talked to her about this huge uncertainty. I remember she had me sit down with a piece of paper, a line down the middle. As an exercise, she told me on one side to write down all the things I really liked doing as a graduate student and on the other side the opposite (I was sure I still had that paper in my files, but cannot locate it. But believe me, it was real).

And the item that stood out on the “like” side the most, which I circled, was one I would not have guessed on my own– teaching. And that was from my experience as a TA in Geology.

It was through this, the frustration in a canyon, the realization that I lost the passion to be a research academic, that I had realized in early 1992 I needed to leave the PhD program, a few clicks short of ABD. I knew I could have jumped through all the hoops to get the doctorate, but did not have it in me. It did not feel right to do it just because I could do it.

What I had facing then was to tell my advisor, she who had done so much to support me as a grad student, making opportunities, finding internships, funding conference trips out of her research grants. I had, and still carry this terribly large dread of letting people down. But it was her trust in me in what she shared earlier, that told me I had to just tell her. That she might understand.

I remember the pit in my stomach of that meeting, but also, and more so, the total support/understanding she gave me. There was no acrimony, no guilt, no trying to talk me out of it. I was not expecting total support, though I do not know why. It was almost easy to be honest.

My plan was to get a certification to teach secondary school science. ASU had a post-bac program, I got accepted, and I could finish it in a year. And in maybe March 1992, I was at the district office of the community colleges, since I needed a part time job, and thought I could find a part time teaching job in Geology.

The irony was I was in the wrong place (those positions are done at the individual colleges). But while in the HR office, I saw a full time position listing for something called a “programmer analyst / instructional systems”. I thought, “I did most of that, and have teaching experience, why not?”

That job application was, at the time, a huge long shot. I am still not 100% sure why they hired me as I was greener than green. But they did, and I went to Maricopa, and discovered a love of programming, media creation, found the web… and 20 years hence, here I am.

Whether my memories are clouded or not precise is not the point. I do know for sure, when the tears came in that canyon, even if they were for 30 seconds, that I was at a career precipice, and needed to either stay on the PhD horse or get off of it.

And while not having a PhD right now may make it hard/impossible for me to find a perch as a teacher, it was without a doubt, the smartest thing I did.

It was self soul making. And for all my uncertainty penned in by an outer shell of false confidence, I owed so much for those who showed me abundant care, and love, and willingness to teach me about being vulnerable.

Even if I have no clue about avunculocal residence patterns, Mike, I did have a book level grasp on the fluid dynamics of supersonic flow in a narrow channel.

Or not.

But it was all on the path to this moment- and all that comes after.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as @cogdog@cosocial.ca


  1. This is rather touching and despite of your decision to not become a PhD I am impressed with the quality of your education work experience.

    I never really had the possibility to attend a PhD program mainly because my parents did not like me doing a German ‘Abitur’, which is necessary for university courses in Germany. I had to go the long way of the ‘zweiten Bildungsweg’, which is making further education and there was no time, money and energy left to go for a master.

    Still, I have met many PhD’s since then, often concerning work and whenever they wanted me to do work which is a kind of scientific, I got really frightened. It felt like becoming a big head loosing all my vitality. I am as happy as you are to have found different ways to spend my life.

    1. Thanks Stefanie- your post about your 6 word memoir and how you were “told” what you should do has always stayed with me.

      And I think your art is the perfect antidote to the fear of science work.

  2. Alan,
    Beautifully written, with many well taken points–about being vulnerable to the world and losing nothing by it; about the academy and soul-making; how soul-making continues regardless of where you are, in a classroom or in a canyon. At Maricopa, you plunged deep into an understanding of The Hero’s Journey, which is where I first met you (unbeknownst to either of us) as you continued to “follow your bliss” to where you are now, which I perceive as being in a remarkable state of “flow.”

    You continue to inspire me with the many ways you bring yourself to the page.

    1. Thanks Sandy. I was fortunate to have that golden era at Maricopa where we were not bound to metrics and competencies, it was all about curiosity and wonder, with open ended projects like the Hero’s Journey site I worked on with Liz Warren (who went on to run the Storytelling Institute at South Mountain Community College)- you would like her work.

  3. This is the naked struggle of the artist in the academic world. Which is a particularly painful (it seems to me) subset of the struggle of the artistic soul in the world in general… because the groves of academe *should* be one of the best supports, shelters, collaboratives and studios that exists, but it’s ended up a dizzying mess of little, mostly unconnected rooms where the art-artists and the teacher-artists are, as much as possible, kept away from one another, to none of their benefit.

    You do amazing things. And I don’t qualify that by saying “given the constraints.” I, myself, don’t know how you do it. It’s how I’ve ended up where I am, mostly watching academia from the outside with the part of me that matters while the other part of me still works there. It cannot hold. I don’t know how you do it, but it’s an inspiration that it *can* be done.

    1. Wow, this means a lot, Chris. Like I hinted at in my reply to Sandy’s comment, that period when I was starting in ed tech at Maricopa, coinciding with the emergence of the early web, was one that feels lots now in our field, with maybe isolated exceptions like UMW. There was not only room for experimentation, but encouragement / financial support for it. There was leadership at the top that was more than bottom line thinking.

      With the wisdom of running universities like businesses, has all that gone out the window? I do not know, and I’ve been pretty far removed from it to even say.

      I thrived inside the system that is school, but I also see 99% of that as the foundational stuff that I did not really get to put into motion a long ways past being in school.

      I feel like I am just starting what I might be able to do, and am motivated daily by the potential of what I do not know about, just the hints I get via other people and channels. None of it really comes from institutions/organizations as a whole, but individuals.

      There is a space to have this at an institution; I know you have your challenges and bundles there, but I was super impressed by the creativity and open thinking of the team at UAF.

  4. What a powerful, bold, and beautifully told story, Alan. I admire your honestly here, your willingness to dive deeply into the past. And your chutzpah to bare this to the world.

    Like Chris says, you’ve done – and do – amazing things. You made the right choice then, and we’re all better for it.

  5. I read this hearing “in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire” over and over. What you say here is so important: self soul making is hard to learn, impossible to teach. We stumble into it and through it. When someone takes the time to write it doors and windows fly open. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Kate- I followed the reference and landed in Emmylou Harris singing “Boulder to Birmingham” (so soulful there); if that is what you heard I applaud your way of sending me there 😉

      That’s ironic because a memory of one day in exploring those canyons in the Valles Caldera I followed a forest road into one canyon and noticed across the other side a string of flames slowly, almost silently dancing. The spaces here are vast, maybe not quite as vast as the Outback, but no one was around for miles. One thinks of forest fires as giant engulfing walls of flame but that’s not reality. I also remember a feeling of not knowing what to do (not that I could); this was pre mobile phone times. So I just went on my way.

      Might be a metaphor there.

      I also am aware at how much more I can know of this time reflecting back on it. In the moment it was of course important and visceral, but the magnitude of it only is seen with perspective. It makes me wonder of the moments right now, which might be as significant down the line.

  6. This is great, Alan. In addition to a referral to what looks like a great turn in Wesch’s work, it is a privilege to visit these places in your past, which become in these reimaginings places in the present. Thanks for taking the trip yourself, and sharing it with us here.

    …and all that comes after. Love it.

  7. “Why not become an academic? I did not know much else.”
    I suspect this is a framing question for many. When I was starting my Master’s Degree, I had two paths: the path to a PhD or the (badly named) terminal Master’s. I debated in my head, and went Terminal (sounds like a Arnold movie) because I didn’t see (and don’t see) the practical value for a doctorate as classroom teacher. Others will differ, perhaps, but those defining moments do define us. Thanks for your story. Stories are important.

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