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The mighty pen.

IT PROBABLY CAME FROM the school bookstore. Except for some teeth marks around the top, it exhibited few distinguishing characteristics. I held my blue ball point pen aloft and asked my class. "What do you call this thing?" Having assimilated the notion that the word is not the thing, my students responded, "We call it a pen." I prodded for other names and they added labels such as marker, writing tool, plastic quill, drawing untensil, and a "cheap Bic."

With the many-labeled article still before them, I inquired, "What can you do with it?" Did I imagine flickers of annoyance as the informaed me, "You write it!" "Well, sure, but what else can you do with it?" I noted a few rolled eyeballs this time. "You can write letters." "Yes, a wonderful use. What else?" "You could write in a diary." "A splendid idea. What else?" "You might write a novel or a really good paper for this class." "Oh, I hope so. What else?" "You could doodle in your notebook instead of taking notes." Hmm.

Before my next query, I began an exaggerated pantomime of trying to scratch an itch in the middle of my back. What my fingers couldn't reach, the blue pen did. I let out a great sigh and asked, "What else can you do with "scratch your back," I had already cleaned my nails with the pocket clip. For the next few minutes, the class needed little prompting to come up with interesting uses for the pen: a ruler, a plant support, a hair fluffer, an ear cleaner, a weapon, a pointer, a drum stick, a book mark, a fondue fork (chocolate only), a lapel decoration, a finger splint, a tool for cleaning corners, a peripheral vision measuring stick. And they brainstormed at least 15 ways to use it as a toy.

How did my old pen change from "a cheap Bic" to become a valued object with so many diverse uses? Initially the students abstracted certain characteristics from the object: It has a liquid substance that leaves trails on paper and the blue plastic container fits easily into a purse or pocket. They called it a "pen" and categorized it as "things you write with." Following an erroneous but commonly accepted "logicalo" principle, an object cannot be both pen and toy, for they belong to different classifications. But when students could blur the lines of what something "is" and view the Bic as a thing to re-map, the created fluid categories for "what it could do."

This exercise works on a number of levels. It demonstrates the abstracting process by showing that while certain properties are abstracted, others get ignored. Students begin to understand that categories exist because of the ways minds organize and label information. We can examine how traditional logic encourages us to see objects (and people) in terms of whether they fit this category or that category. Students often discover new respect for the extensional device of "et cetera" as they re-map and re-map and re-map the territory. And it didn't take them long to figure out that creative problem-solvers move beyond labels in order to see more possibilities.

Occasionally, students will start to question the usefulness of categories. In order to prevent that either-or perspective, I assure tham that categorizations certainly have good and practical uses. After all, a pen usually works better as a writing tool than as an ear cleaner or a fondue fork. But if you've got an itch you just can't reach, try a pen.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Institute of General Semantics
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Author:Johnson, Andrea
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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