Looking forward by looking back?

I like the way people prognosticate at the beginning of a year. It’s not that I think they are going to be terribly accurate or that the the insights contained within such ramblings will do me any particular benefit. I think it’s the tone of hope that strikes me. One of our favorite (and most resilient) phrases for the change of a calendar is “this year will be better than last year.” I appreciate this sense of optimism. And I think it has often been true in my life, with this year (hopefully) being no exception.

It’s getting to that time in my graduate school career, however, where I need to look backward in order to look forward. I recently spent some time perusing my personal bibliography, and I was slightly shocked to find names of books that I only half remember on the list. Forget articulating the author’s argument; if I’m lucky I remember the thesis of the book. I should probably be more upset by this, as this is the list that will inform my comprehensive examinations, but as of now I’m not terribly affected by this, nor am I surprised: forgetting is as much a part of life as remembering, I guess. I keep decent notes on each of the books that I read, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to reacquaint myself with the literature.

In a roundabout way, though, this lead me to a broader but related rumination: how much of looking forward is a sort of selective appropriation of the past? How much of finding a “new vision for the future” is an admittedly complex process of looking back over the things that worked and the things that didn’t, making inferences about the likelihood of the former continuing to work in the future, and perhaps making a few tweaks to each idea? This is related, in my mind, to the idea that radical innovations rarely just spring from the ether: they most often evolve through a series of small changes and adaptations that eventually add up to major changes. The process of change is often granular, incremental, and contextually-oriented.

To take one very small example, consider the innovations in classroom feedback technologies. Moving from decidedly analog hand raising to smartphone-enabled, real-time, peer-ranked question submission and polling data seems like a big change, and indeed it is. But looking at it as a series of changes – from hand raising to clicking a button on a dedicated device to adding smartphone support to adding full-text question ranking – allows one to get a sense of how things actually changed, and just how gradually they did. This isn’t a paean to the wonders of historical inquiry, necessarily, but it does change the way one thinks about the process of development and growth, both personally and in other realms.

Obviously this does not preclude game-changing innovations, nor imply that technologies (or people) are incapable of making significant progress in a short space of time. But I think it does mean that each innovation or series of innovations has a history that needs to be understood. Acquiring this understanding allows one to look hopefully toward the future by looking to the past.


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