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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Some Concerns I have about the Class I Teach

I consider my task as an Intro to Rhetoric and Composition teacher to help my students learn to communicate in writing. I serve other gods though. I want to prepare the students for the types of writing they'll be asked to do in other departments. And I have to address the concerns of the senior faculty in the English department. What bothers me is that despite reams of research I've read in the field of Rhet Comp I've seen nothing resembling an empirical assessment of rival teaching methods. Far too often it seems what ends up being stressed in Freshman Rhet Comp classes is simply what's fashionable among Rhet Comp scholars.

Of course, Rhet Comp scholars are, by definition successful writers, so why shouldn't a writing pedagogy be based on what they concern themselves with? And why not try to equip students with everything that might be of use to them?

Imagine a research program designed to uncover the differences in writing strategies between beginning and expert writers. Upon completion, the researchers provide a list of practices the findings suggest teachers should encourage their students to adopt. Expert writers, for instance, devote much more time to revision than beginners; therefore, students should be exhorted to revise their papers more than they may deem necessary. The pedagogical formula here is to try to make beginning writers behave like expert writers. This idea is likely far too simple, and may actually encumber students on their paths toward expertise more than it helps them. Revision is possible, even irresistible, for expert writers owing to their keen sensibility for what constitutes good writing; insisting to beginners that they revise then calls on them to apply knowledge and skills in the assessment of their own writing they have yet to develop, making revision just another meaningless routine toward the goal of satisfying a teacher.

There is a saying among mixed martial arts trainers that the best way to teach somebody nothing is to try to teach them everything. Attempts to load beginners up with the strategies of experts at too early a stage in their education inhere with the danger of overwhelming them, leaving them discouraged and in despair as to their chances of ever acquiring that expertise which seems so far beyond their comprehension. Prevailing upon students in Intro Comp courses the importance of being attuned to the audience of their writing and the genre conventions by which it will be assessed may speed them along the path toward practices similar to those of more experienced writers, but being forced to consider the added dimensions of audience and genre as they’re struggling to compose grammatical sentences within viable paragraphs will just as likely convince them this writing thing is just too complicated. While it is true that experienced writers routinely consider audience and genre, this observation leaves two important questions unanswered: At what point in their development did they begin to incorporate these considerations into their strategies? And how did they learn to do so?

Instruction, to avoid overwhelming students or saddling them with practices devoid of meaning, must be stage-appropriate, and pedagogy based on research findings on the strategies of experts must consider the possibility that any given practice may emerge, not as a result of direct teaching, but as a byproduct of the refinement of other skills or the general growth of awareness about the discipline. Asking beginning writers to analyze a piece of writing in terms of genre and audience may simply be trying to get them to draw on knowledge they’ve yet to acquire, knowledge they may acquire automatically, without any instruction or encouragement, as they encounter and become more familiar with a greater number of texts in various genres and come to know the types of people, including individual scholars, who will likely be interested in any given work. Writing instructors need to avoid behaving like parents who try to teach their children to walk and talk as early as possible to give them a head start on the road to achievement, even though timing of first words and first steps seems to emerge independent of parents instructions, when the children are ready, and have nothing to do with later proficiency or grace.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Minds in the Sky with Lighthouses

I walk through the swinging doors into the kitchen of Casa Ristorante, somewhat quieted but still bustling after dinner rush, and see Sam, a fellow server, patting her pockets with an expression of consternation. “It’s in the Florida room,” I say, referring to one of the areas reserved for larger parties in the restaurant. Her expression changes instantly to one of confusion, and then, after only about a second and a half, she smiles and laughs.

“I was thinking I should’ve gotten a text back by now,” she says, heading for the doors I just passed through. The entire exchange happened in the span of about five seconds. What made Sam’s expression change before my eyes was her ceasing to worry over the possibility that she’d lost her phone. But then she had to wonder how I could have possibly known that it was her phone she was worried about when I came in the kitchen and saw her patting herself. Before long it dawned on her that we’d just been sitting in the Florida room a minute ago, both availing ourselves of the opportunity to check our messages and send a few responses.

She’d gotten up and left the room first. So she reasoned I could have seen her phone still sitting on the table afterward. Or perhaps it had even buzzed and lighted up with a new message. Having witnessed this, I’d immediately assume when I saw her patting herself she was looking for her phone, which I did, which she was. But it wasn’t just Sam and me trading information based on contextual, gestural, and emotional cues; she was also cued in to the person she was expecting a return text from. That person’s missing of a timing cue made her realize something was amiss.

Sam and I weren’t literally reading each other’s minds, but we did go through a process of deduction that enabled each of us to know what the other was thinking. Humans rely on this type of mind reading and helpful coordination so naturally we take it for granted. We are so given, in fact, to casting about for clues about the workings of other minds that we put considerable time and energy into trying to understand the intentions behind events with purely natural or accidental causes—things which occurred in the complete absence of any mind’s intentions.

Psychologists call this capacity for taking the perspective of others and reasoning about their thoughts and feelings theory of mind. Because we take it so much for granted though, it may seem a strange thing to study scientifically. But humans, despite glimmerings in a handful of the usual suspects—apes, dolphins, that bird Alex—are alone in their uncanny ability to deduce what’s going on in the minds of other humans. (Dogs also have an amazing talent for reading people though.) And the going theory about the social difficulties autistic people have is that their theories of mind are underdeveloped. Theory of mind has even been successfully defined operationally in studies designed to investigate when it first emerges in children. The idea is to stage a scene in which the child witnesses someone placing, say, a briefcase in a room before leaving. Then the child witness another person come in and move the briefcase to another location in the room. Finally, the child is asked where the first person will look for the briefcase upon returning to the room. Before about age four, most kids answer that they’ll look where the briefcase actually is instead where it has been moved unbeknownst to them.

Now imagine theory of mind developed through a process of natural selection—possibly at the level of the group—because it offered advantages by giving people a greater ability to both manipulate and coordinate with others. In lockstep with this development, though, people began more and more to apply their mind reasoning to entities without brains—even entities that were completely imaginary. This is how evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering accounts for the mental underpinnings of religion. Our instinct for getting into each other’s heads is so strong, he argues, that it’s difficult for us to imagine anything happening without some intention behind it. If a tsunami kills thousands, well then we must’ve done something really wrong and the mind behind the tides is letting us know about it.

I recently read To the Lighthouse for a graduate seminar on Representations of the Read in Literature. Alongside it, I read Darwin’s Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson and The God Instinct by Jesse Bering. Their theory, though they differ in regard to the importance of group selection and the propositional specifics of religion, is that religion, and our relations with the dead, serve as an adaptation to foster group cohesion, encourage cooperation and discourage cheating. Bering focuses too on theory of mind, arguing that our ability to consider what others are thinking carries with it the danger of our applying it where it doesn’t make rational sense. We apply theory of mind to the dead, who having no brains have no mind. We also see minds behind random occurrences, troubling us with concerns over what message God may be trying to send us when something terrible happens.

Woolf’s parents died when she was young—her mother when she was 13, her father when she was 22—and To the Lighthouse is often called an elegy. If Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are her parents, she struggles, through various characters, perhaps most starkly through Lily Briscoe, the painter, to face with clear eyes and perfect honesty both her feelings of love and reverence and her awareness of their pettiness and their limitations. Woolf obviously applied her theory of mind to her dead parents, but what insight does this bring to the novel? Bering’s theory is unnecessary. Anyone can see that Lily wants Mrs. Ramsey’s approval even as she realizes she’s taken a path the lovely woman knows nothing about. So, while it’s true the mother continues to live, the idea is so basic and so intuitive that it’s difficult to see what’s to be gained by using it.

Is there some lesson about altruism in To the Lighthouse? In a sense, the inner workings of the characters deal primarily with their roles in the world, in society. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are admirable figures, and no one can quite live up to them. But they do not exhaust the range of humanity. Any individual, or couple, is limited, and often in ways those close to them find oppressive. Mrs. Ramsey knows nothing about the art that obsesses Lily. Mr. Ramsey, preoccupied as he is with his standing in history, his failure to reach R in the alphabet of human accomplishments, is needy of his wife, demanding of his children, and fiercely self-absorbed. To live up to their examples—but how can one follow the example of beauty or brilliance?—while being aware of their flaws, to sort out what the force of the love for this family is compelling each of those who experience it toward, to love, to seek intimacy, even unity, while at the same time accepting their uniqueness and equally reverencing their own contributions, this is the dilemma they are all faced with. The overwhelming presence of these figures speaks to their role as parents, as if at some level Woolf failed to create a new cast for her drama by assuming everyone felt toward her parents the way she must have, and it lies at the heart of the stories intensity, its exquisite rendering of moment-to-moment thought and experience in rhythmic ebbings and flowings.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Use is a Memory These Days?

             I like to tell people I continue to work as a waiter because I want to keep one foot in the real world. As stressful and jarring as it is to be thrown into a crowded restaurant on a bustling Saturday night after doing academic stuff all week, I realize at the end of each of those harrowing shifts there’s nothing that quite matches their demand for fluid intelligence. And I like to add yet another demand. At my first restaurant job, a fellow server named Becky explained to me once that she never really decided not to write down orders; she just realized at some point she wasn’t even referring to what she’d written when she typed the orders into the computer. Since I was still learning the menu at the time I suspected Becky might be a genius. But it wasn’t long before I was memorizing my orders too.

            I was still at that first restaurant when I read Mind Performance Hacks and learned about mnemonics like memory palaces and number-rhyme pegs (one-gun, two-shoe…), but I decided against trying to use them at work. Munchies (which later became Luckies) was my brain gym; the idea was to be challenged, not to use shortcuts. Still, I was uncomfortable every time I approached a table with ten or more people, knowing I was good for at best eleven orders. Maybe I could push that number higher, but it would mean getting big tables more often than I could count on. So in the back of my mind I toyed with the possibility of sitting down some day and mastering the memory techniques.

            The day I first attended a class to prepare me for teaching Intro to Rhetoric and Composition courses the professor challenged us to remember the names of all our classmates. Sitting in a circle, we each in turn introduced ourselves and commented on our favorite item of clothing in our wardrobes. I treated it as an order. But I had an extra few seconds for each name, so I went back and reviewed as many prior names as I could before the next person said his or her name. A classmate named Shannon and I were the only two to remember all twenty-two names. (I have no idea how she did it.) Pleased with myself, I figured I’d have no difficulty remembering the names of my students in the future. And I didn’t—until my third semester teaching. That’s when names and faces started to blur and I began to find myself staring at some poor student as I was taking attendance, silently cursing him for being such an undifferentiated mass of human goo.

            For this semester, it was back to Mind Performance Hacks. After learning the twenty-two names on my class roster in about five minutes using a memory palace and celebrities with the same names—without a single rehearsal—I decided I might want to look into these mnemonics after all. First, I memorized a Phillip Larkin poem (a day and a half), then fifteen of Arthur Aaron’s questions (five minutes), then the geological time scale as it’s printed in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (forty-five minutes). I’ve had mixed success (mixed failure) using memory palaces at work. I beat my record of eleven by correctly encoding thirteen orders and matching them to the proper positions at the table. But I’ve also botched a couple six and eight-tops. Apparently, the new technique is interfering with old ones I didn’t even know I was using.

            But according to Mind Hacks there’s yet another level beyond memory palaces. Before committing to the Dominic System or the Major System, though, I was anxious to read something I’d come across while browsing Amazon. In one of those bizarre coincidences Jungians and New Agers read signs into, tech writer Joshua Foer was publishing a book just as I was deciding to do further research. In a blurb on the back cover of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, science writer Jonah Lehrer claims Foer’s book “invents a new genre of nonfiction.” Foer himself calls it “participatory journalism.” But the book uncannily resembles Neil Strauss’s foray into the world of pick up artists and the resultant Horatio Alger story in The Game. In place of PUA’s, Foer encounters and gets taken under the wings of MA’s—Mental Athletes. And he undergoes a transformation from well educated, above average geeky guy to U.S. Memory Champion over the course of a year. Even though the best in this country are usually not very competitive on the world stage, Foer’s accomplishment is still absurdly impressive. Like Strauss, though, he insists at every step of the way that getting good, achieving excellence, is only a matter of training and determination. (Largely owing to his picture on the jacket, I kept thinking of Foer as Harry Potter writing about his first year at Hogwarts.)

            Strauss enjoyed the luxury of his topic’s intrinsic fascination, and to a slightly lesser extent this is true for Foer too. I have to say, though, as much as I enjoyed The Game, Moonwalking with Einstein is a much better book. Foer brings a refreshing skepticism to his analysis that’s disturbingly lacking in Strauss’s writing. (Neuro-Linguistic Programming is total bullshit.) Tony Buzan, the leader of the memory renaissance, who put on the first World Championships and is still lobbying to have his methods—most of which are not really his—implemented as part of regular class curricula, jumps from the pages of Foer’s book like a character from a Saul Bellow novel, a complete shyster who after spouting off a bunch of nonsense manages to say things that are shockingly profound and, you sense, completely true. We discover too that the mnemonists’ world has an analog to the magic world’s Uri Geller, a guy who uses the standard repertoire of tricks but claims he’s using nothing but his natural gifts. If you’ve seen the documentary Brainman, you know who he’s talking about.

            Foer is better too at fleshing out some of the underlying philosophical issues. While it’s true The Game explores the theme of questioning the ultimate worth of mastery by describing how it turns a lot of guys into unsavory characters, Strauss’s self-promotion drowns out any meaningful examination of the issue. How could a guy’s life be derailed by his efforts to master the skills involved in seducing a woman? (Sounds like a great idea for a novel—stay tuned.) Foer does better at making the question explicit and trying to work out some answers. Will enhanced memory mean greater wisdom? Does “elaborative encoding” detract from the meaning of what’s being memorized? What does it mean that so many of these mnemonic enthusiasts are, as Foer describes, people who are “indistinguishable from those” you’d find at a “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (five of spades) concert”? (189). And what role should memory palaces play in education?

            I’m glad I read the book before committing to my Dominic System because it turns out it’s been tweaked. The idea is to come up with a person performing some action for every two-digit combination. Ozzy Osborne is my 00, and he’s biting the head off a bat. But now competitive mnemonists are using the PAO system, which means person action object. My 00 still works but several others I’d come up with don’t. With three bits of information for every two-digit number, you can memorize one image for every six digits. MA’s memorize multiple decks of cards by putting these images in memory palaces. Anyway, now I can get back to creating my personal image inventory, which incidentally is really hard. Try coming up with a hundred distinct and easily recognizable actions even without attaching them to people. And what will I do with it when I’m done? Well, there are a lot of things I want to memorize as scaffolds for future learning: the periodic table, a more detailed and up-to-date geological timescale, maybe some U.S. history, etc. But I have to keep in mind Foer’s book is great because throughout the process of writing it he continued to be a science writer and never fully identified himself as a mnemonist. I too am a writer first. Memorizing is a great first step to learning, but it’s not the ultimate one.