Starting with Rob

When in my mid thirties I entered graduate programs at MIT, I missed the family that stayed behind in Connecticut during the week while I studied in Cambridge. Rob was the first to come to Cambridge to keep me company. (The activities of that first visit are captured in the note “ZOOM.” ) As an experienced programmer, it was fun for me to make Logo based facilities for children. And who better to benefit from my labor than my own children? It seemed common sense that I should be able to understand whether or not my children were learning anything from Logo microworlds, so I paid attention to what they did.

In the background of our activities in Cambridge were the years we had spent together having fun any way we could manage. I spent as much time as I could with Rob and Miriam. During summers the children were primarily in my care. (My wife, the children’s mother, Gretchen, worked as a chemist in a local laboratory). To make sure each had a fair share of my time and attention, I proposed that every day, each child, individually, would have “a half hour” of my time at their disposal, to use in whatever way he and she chose. The rest of the time was still to be shared but primarily was open to negotiation. These dedicated half hours pleased the children, and I enjoyed them immensely. As often as we were together, I tried to keep up that kind of child guided activity. And if they could participate in what I was doing, I welcomed them. My knowledge gained as an engaged Dad helped me understand “where they were coming from” and what they might be trying to do. Since skeptics never believe even the simplest of truths, and the academic world is filled with skeptics, I began to keep records of what we did and use those records as evidence for why I had confidence in what I believed was happening. Thus the things I wrote about our activities began to look more and more like case studies, which pleased me considerably. I read Robert White’s, “Lives in Progress” as an undergraduate and was most impressed by his interpretations and analyses.[1] I thought then and still believe case study was and is a profound and human method to pursue knowledge.

The culmination of studies with Rob, published as “The Development of Objectives,” also involved my recognizing that his rate of intellectual growth was outpacing my ability to keep track of what he knew. For example, he was interested in and learned more about World War II than I knew. I had hope that I could keep up with Miriam for six months because she was two years younger and thus wrote the proposal for The Intimate Study. But I faced a dilemma. I feared Rob would feel abandoned if I turned my attention to Miriam to track her learning. The solution was to involve both in The Intimate Study and to collect data and materials for both. But for my doctoral study I promised only the analysis of information about Miriam.[2] And if The Intimate Study includes more well constructed corpus material than I have been able to analyze, that is even more true of the six year long study of Peggy. And if you have reasonable aims that can be served by these materials, though different from my own, let me know what you have in mind. I would be interested to hear from you.

Robert W. Lawler
September, 2009

1. Other enthusiasts for the method may be interested to read of my investigation of his case corpora, presented in “Evolving Datacase Designs” on the page “Case study and Computing.”
2. I remain grateful to Hal Abelson for first recommending this strategy.

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