Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Simon and ‘Miracle and Wonder’

Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon by Malcolm Gladwell and Bruce Headlam

Published (released?) in November 2021

The news was filled with stories of higher education’s struggles to adapt to the realities of Omicron.

We all seem to be doing our best to navigate an educational environment that is part analog and part digital, but optimized for neither.

Face-to-face learning in residential institutions is the expectation. But the realities of infection and risk, worry and stress, constantly challenge our abilities to return to an educational normal.

Above all, I’m glad that most residential colleges and universities are going back to primarily in-class learning, or at least have a plan to get there. As I read, the costs to student welfare of continuing remote learning would now (mostly) outweigh the health risks of a (masked) return to the classroom.

While I am relieved at the commitment of most college and university leaders to push for residential normality, I continue to wonder what might have been if we had better anticipated the current public health situation this summer.

How educationally resilient would our institutions be if we had prepared for more seamless course delivery through in-person and digitally mediated modalities?

One of the lessons of the pandemic is that distance education is terrible, but online learning is great. The difference between the two is that distance learning is reactive, unplanned and lacks resources while online learning is proactive, well planned and expensive to set up.

All this brings me to Miracle and Wonder, an audiobook of conversations between Paul Simon and co-authors Malcolm Gladwell and Bruce Headlam.

For a minute, put aside where you stand as a fan of Paul Simon’s music and Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. I’m a huge fan of both, so of course I loved this audiobook.

Instead, think about how Miracle and Wonder uses digital storytelling to create a listening experience that goes beyond what is possible in traditional book form. By mixing music, interviews and narration, Miracle and Wonder transports the reader into the songwriting genius of Paul Simon.

Gladwell did not set out to write a biography of Paul Simon. Some good biographies of Paul Simon have already been written. Instead, what Gladwell was looking for was to understand how Simon’s career as a songwriter evolved over the many decades he wrote. In Miracle and Wonder, we hear Simon talk about the art of songwriting while listening to the evolution of his music.

Through his company Pushkin Industries, co-founded with Jacob Weisberg, Gladwell seems intent on pushing the boundaries of book-length narratives.

Both Miracle and Wonder and his latest book, The Bomber Mafia, combined non-fiction storytelling with audio clips and interviews. The writing is no less engaging and complex than a traditional non-fiction book produced for print. The difference is that these books are audio first, designed to be listened to.

As Gladwell has transitioned to audiobooks, the team of creators he collaborates with has grown. In Miracle and Wonder, Gladwell teams up with music expert Bruce Headlam. Paul Simon is also more of a collaborator than a subject of the book. And there’s a whole team of sound engineers and researchers to help bring these new Gladwell books to life.

In higher education, we have a choice to make. We can decide that now is the time to invest in the way education is created and delivered.

We can choose to make teaching – at least some courses – more of a team sport than a solo sport. We can surround faculty with non-academic educators and design our courses as born digital.

That doesn’t mean learning has to move online. The residential learning experience has endless benefits.

What can change is that higher education can become resilient to external shocks and more flexible for all our learners.

The next evolution of the course is not online education, but rather learning that incorporates the best of face-to-face and digitally mediated methods and practices.

Our colleges and universities may need to look outside of higher education for inspiration on where we might go next.

Spending time listening to Paul Simon and Malcolm Gladwell is a nice way to stimulate our thinking about a different kind of future for higher education.

What are you reading?

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