Forgo the Perfunctory

A conversation with a friend today revealed that I am not the only one thinking about how to rise above the dark concentration of same-old lines travelled in every day life. I don't mean the physical map of concentrated common routes walked in a city, but that is what I am picturing. I mean the quotidian lines of thought that are pursued, that become perfunctory.
What if, for example, instead of worrying about petty environments, one were to look past them? What if, instead of whinging about orders to work on mediocrity, one were to set about planning a strategy to implement a series of boundaries where one would not have to do such work? Such creativity - forging a way that is better in line with what one has to give (which can be decades in the making, requiring other work of its own) - requires extra work, but fulfilment is rarely presented on a silver platter. It has to be fought for. And in this battle, mistakes will be made. But while mistakes may lead to tough consequences, if one has already set off on the journey called Creative Learning, one will be left with something to learn from. This wouldn't be the case if one had done nothing.



As I was trying to think through several problems recently, I once again practised my favourite exercise of phrasing these problems as questions, which I then type into google. The results led me, albeit circuitously, to a business motivational speaker and an underwater diver. The former, Marcel Schwantes, speaks to human-centric management: a know thyself lateral approach to others. I would give a Creative Learning award to for Remaining Constructive Under Duress for the following (from here):
...every problem has the seeds of its own solution. You can find the answer to your problem if you look deeply enough into the problem itself. 
When things go wrong or are poorly managed, people get reactive, maybe even start to slap damning epithets onto peoples' backs, but one can maintain the vision that there is another way. And that there is a way out.
Diver Guillaume Néry (whose most recent fame is this breathtaking video that has transportive qualities) speaks (from 9:25) of the flurry of thoughts that begin to spin and intensify as he begins his descent to the depths of the ocean - in a description that seemed relatable enough to more general experiences of difficulty. He goes on to say that one can't control thoughts at that point: one shouldn't try to, "you have to let it happen; the more you try to control, the harder it is to manage". Once he lets go, he finds there is no need to breathe.



There has to be a letting go from the "perfunctory answer" of poorly-zoned quotidian thought if that deeper place, where wisdom lies, has a chance to be heard. In fact, I wonder if even mediocre chores are better accomplished once one has taken the plunge to this deeper place, that exists in a limbo between coming and going.
A long time ago, I saved to my phone what I found out today was a passage from Castanada who I have never read, so I have no idea how I found it, that resonates with this:
Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path;  ... This question is one that only a very old man asks. Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn't. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.
(Full passage here.) The going through the bush, or into the bush reminds me of this 'coming and going' limbo that maybe I should call Tao. Néry's Tao is also tied to a going when he describes what happens on needing to return to the surface after a deep dive. It would be easy to panic, he says, because from those depths one can suddenly be overwhelmed by the desire to get to the surface. It would be easy to panic, but he says that instead of panicking, he looks straight ahead, never allowing himself to even picture himself at the surface, only looking at the line in front of him, in the present. In this way, time goes faster...
This seems equivalent to the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach to running. It really works.
What I have gathered together here are different lines of counsel and experiences that suggest that the way forwards may come from a temporary resignation of self from the flurry of unthinking narrative. This involves an important differentiation: some thoughts occur, and they go on and on, as if they make sense or are of use, but after following them through, one realises that they are a waste. This is unthinking narrative. Thoughtful narrative has a through line to a clearing, and is constructive.
To return to the problem: it has the seeds of its solution within it because if it is accepted (as opposed to denied, ignored), it leads to broad questions, which lead to a clearing of their own. The problem is entertaining: it is asking something of us we did not have before. As we look at it, we are also looking at ourselves, asking what we need to cultivate within in order to meet the needs of the seed. It asks us to grow with it. It is an invitation to forgo the perfunctory, the same old narratives. It allows us to imagine, if we dare, who we would like to become as we steward its growth.
If we care, we may be met with a flurry of resistance. But if we see it through...


Experiment

Once upon a time, someone said something to me I thought quite shocking: that one could benefit by experimenting in life, to gain a clearer idea of what helps one flourish. I have probably returned to this idea because in conducting the periodical internal housecleaning that it so necessary, I have uncovered quite a bit of lazy thinking - including some that is self-righteous adjacent. So, it would help to start to experiment to find ways to get out of these bad habits. I found some useful ideas in Rich Roll's latest podcast (though have yet to listen to the last half hour). One of the anecdotes recounted reminded me of one I heard a few days ago: the late Serbian Patriarch Pavle had been asked what he thought of Milosevic, and whether he blamed him, etc., to which he responded that such an approach was irrelevant as the true problem lay in each individual. If they were better, the situation would be better, he said.
I was not "better", last week. I recounted to a colleague a deviant statement made by a third colleague who had shared his understanding that university be akin to kindergarten for adults (his view rendering the essay redundant, laughable work). I realised afterwards just how wrong that was of me on so many levels. I recount the specifics here only to show an example of what I consider to provoke a self-righteous response. But here is another response: what if one understands that other people are always, in their minds, doing the best they can? It doesn't make sense to criticise their actions (outside of classrooms - though even correction of students can be done in multiple ways). The question is whether one can navigate around Scylla and Charybdis, accepting them in their present state (for who would want to be blocked the opportunity for later change? So why would one slap a judgement on someone else?) The question is whether we can try to help those around us grow, just as we see we need to grow, and also would like help ourselves. Is this not the pedagogical mission? And if we claim to be teachers/instructors/etc. and are not doing this, are we truly what we claim to be?
Another thing I have noticed is how much fear can build up inside that distorts vision. I am pretty sure that this fear has caused me to act in an uncalled for way from time to time, which is to say that I have caused my own problems.

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Can I try to experiment to live without fear? To inhabit moment to moment and stop worrying?
Can I experiment to try to find my voice and what it is that I have felt for so long now that I need to write? Academic fear is very real: one knows that one's arguments can easily be refuted, that one can never have read all the relevant books... But the very beautiful pragmatic American approach says: cut your losses and begin. Begin to have any chance whatsoever at getting somewhere. And the time is nigh when you can start to riff from idea to idea and know what sources there are behind those ideas.
I will end this post on one idea I am thinking about. It has to do with some of the sources behind the idea that we should all be heard, which I hope this post makes clear that I respect. That said, some of the models for that approach quickly veer off into relativistic cacophony or willful ignorance. For example, one paper, quite prominent in the field of contrastive rhetoric, stresses how "classroom dialogue that underscores difference in rhetoric ... could perpetuate Othering, cultural stereotyping, and unequal relations of power." It is astonishing that it is assumed that equal relations of power is that simple. In fact, this entire post, written by someone who shirks at the idea of lording over others, demonstrates that despite such antipathies, self-righteous impulses can develop and be at once made manifest while remaining latent. What of those who are not self-critical? Does experience not teach that something is always in power, that hierarchy will exist in one way or another? Note that this does not mean to say that attempts at unity are futile; rather, the spirit in which one approaches unity is most pertinent.
This is why the pursuit of large words like truth and equality is to be stressed. Nowhere in Plato will you find a prescription for the achievement of such goals; in fact, Socrates says that he can only pursue truth and never possess it. It is not a complicated idea, this humility. But it is an unpopular one.
While children's books generally present truth and equality as virtues that can be achieved, I would like to point out that as adults, very few live by those precepts. How many adults forgive the person who stole their metaphorical lollipop? Or who confess, in the end, to stealing it in a moment of weakness? Or who live with an open heart?
Indeed, my colleague may have unwittingly been on to something when he equated university with kindergarten because it could truly be asked whether we would all pass the test we put to children. We ask of the child to temper its zeal and to be patient. Etc. Such growth of character is crucial to the prolonged existence of humanity. The experiment here is to find ways to retain the rudimentary lessons of childhood in order to fully be the adult. 

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What Is A Literary Polis

One of the problems I encountered this year was dealing with the assumption that literacy has been gained if one can comprehend written sentences and use the google search engine. The basis of this assumption lacks self-criticism to the degree that it is considered acceptable to "hate lists" (of the kind that are best internalised if there is to be literacy of genres, further reach of perspective) and demonstrate impatience at being indicated any idea that is not to personal taste. This assumption is not to blame if it has grown unobstructed through university education, and has a degree behind it, supporting, in this way, its existence: ironically, on paper.
But are we literate if we can read a passage and use google? Or are there different levels of literacy - to thus instill in the former assumption a degree of humility?
To follow an Aristotelian line, as put forward rather succinctly by Edith Hall in Aeon, one is to practice clearly and precisely systematic communication of the rudiments of one's ideas which may then be further developed among more advanced 'readers' through specialist, technical language. (This approach was popular in Victorian times: think, for example, of Farraday's lectures.) Following this line, it may be seen that literacy is of course developed beyond an elementary level. It may then be asked just what kind of constellation of ideas one must have to be able to follow - and then create - cartographies of complexity. Literacy in this respect may be seen as something that is never fully mastered (as universes are not mastered by single human minds), but explored with varying degrees of depth.
Hall argues that Aristotle's approach to philosophy was to make the rudiments available to the general public through his exoteric works that would draw on beliefs commonly held by the majority as their starting points. Put in the terms I am discussing here, Aristotle appealed to the public by building on its platitudes to raise the literacy of the polis. One of my pet ideas right now is about how important it is to discuss the role of a literacy that has depth-perception, as it is crucial to society for enabling a temporary distancing from oneself (where one enters into another's argument, for example) as this movement teaches that one is not the centre of the world.
This literacy will be reflected in  self-reflection (following the hermeneutic arc). The more I think about this arc, the more it seems to me bound to pedagogy, or to epistemic fluency: to achieve a high level of literacy seems bound to the ability to understand which requires some conscious knowledge of how things are learnt. So, a higher level of literacy might then require both a knowledge of a given subject and a knowledge of how knowledge is obtained or used.
I think this idea is illustrated in Shannon Cain's definition of literary citizenship (via mhpbooks). It acknowledges listening/reading,  teaching/mentoring/being mentored, and sharing - which speaks to what I wrote above. The latter reminds me of what some call the conundrum of saving a human life vs. a library - what is the more important: life or the learning?
Cain's definition of literary citizenship follows:
•    Read. A lot.
•    Subscribe to literary magazines.
•    Buy books. Review them, and publish the reviews.
•    Teach.
•    Celebrate the achievements of your colleagues. Champion their work.
•    Share your power.
•    Donate to small presses. Volunteer. Join a governing board.
•    Practice humility.
•    In workshop, be patient and kind and truthful.
•    Attend talks and conferences. Listen hard.
•    Mentor a new writer. Be mentored.
•    Be a good friend to other writers. Keep generosity in your heart.

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Epistemic Flow

It is not only because it is spring that I feel that aspects of myself that had been Persephonean are blooming; indeed, the contact with death this summer had also contributed to that feeling I am departing from: of being closed up under the earth, but still breathing - nourishing hope, and cultivating within myself those ideas that I feel to be life-giving. (Colleagues would say to me, as if I were living in the lap of luxury: how great that you are focusing on those ideas, we don't have time to - to which I would reply, I don't have time for anything else...)
And all of a sudden, I am seeing the ideas I had been cultivating everywhere else: as if all that time I had been stuck in the underworld, people above had been playing in colour.
One example is the podcast I referenced yesterday, which I finished today. Here is a link (very hard to link directly to specific podcast episodes! that should really change!) to the episode of The Moment where Koppelman interviews Godin.
Godin gives one of the best illustrations of epistemic fluency I have ever heard. (Epistemic fluency is something that I decided as of last year to include among my course objectives.) Godin says he once interviewed job candidates (before the age of the internet) by asking how many gas stations there are in the US. He notes how some would not even engage with this game, saying "I don't have a car", and getting up and leaving the interview. On the basis of how interviewees answered this question, he could gauge what it would be like to work with them.
That question is a great illustration of epistemic fluency, which can be defined as "learning how to solve problems when the correct answer is unknown". I am pretty sure that I got that definition from this 1972 CONARC paper. I have condensed the guidelines to accomplishing this (given in the paper) as follows:
1. learn/ask/define what the job is
2. learn/ask/define what resources are available
This fits in with the "approach to topics" that I give that draw on rhetoric.
I would just like to point out in closing how once again my hunch that all of the tools that had once been taught in language/literature classes are now taught more practically (cf. phronesis) in business classes. More than once, I have found myself even taking ideas for pedagogical approaches from studies that have emerged from business schools (a favourite author includes Peter Goodyear, who has a hefty tome about epistemic fluency).

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Enrolment

It would hardly be a new observation to note that not all students want an education. My favourite reference to this being in Confucius where he remarks that some students are like rotten wood: material from which nothing can be made (朽木不可雕).
Lest this sound disparaging, I will point out that constructivist pedagogy puts emphasis on the need of student engagement for the teaching to be effective. Once the classroom is no longer teacher-centric, which some call didactic, responsibility shifts to the students. While it is possible to spark engagement through delivery, it is not always possible to reach recalcitrant students. Some do not wish to put forth the good will for the communication that could take place. It may be true that some instructors just aren't a right match for certain students, but I will posit that overcoming any potential mismatching is actually one of the elements of learning.
There are times when I have put all other work aside in an attempt to repackage my classes in such a way as to maximise the chances of engaging everyone, with varying degrees of success. These days, I am starting to think of ways in which I can continue to repeat the course objectives through the end of the semester - letting the repetition through the changing situations of weekly readings and activities do the work for me. We know that objectives are not meant to by myriad; we also know that they are somewhat broad. This - sadly, or happily, depending on the perspective - will help guarantee that most if not all students will meet them, if only superficially or barely. (So, the question could stand to be asked just how much students have internalised the criteria of the objectives. This depends on how much institutional support there is in implementing criteria.)
By focusing on repetition, one can curtail criticism - which, while called for, is not an effective mechanism. As stated above, I am now interested in gathering a number of ways in which I can repeat the same thing, but in a different way.

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To this end, I have been visiting types of podcasts I do not normally listen to, and have found the series between Brian Koppelman and Seth Godin (on the former's The Moment) not only charming to listen to because of their friendly relationship but useful. I'll give two illustrations.
In one episode, Seth takes issue with the word quality, pointing out that in much popular definition it means "closeness to specified need or expectation". He lists examples where because of the stipulations of whatever the specified need may be (e.g. low cost) the proximity to our first connotation of "quality" may be very distant indeed.
Going back to class, one could revisit the criteria given to students, and explain them in terms of "specified need", and give students the definition of quality listed above. One could then ask students why, or why not, they consider their work good quality.
The second takeaway from the interviews is Seth's consideration of "enrolment": how one might focus on enrolling only those who are interested in what one is saying rather than being concerned with having any greater reach. His illustration is how, in his bid to leave a trace that would outlast the transience of the internet, he printed a very small run of books containing his collected works: an unwieldy colour edition. With a limited number of books to sell, there was no need to worry about marketing, promotions, book tours, negotiations. And while this example reminds me of why I stopped reading Seth's blog, because it begins to sound like so much "spin", it also reminded me of why I used to read it: such a conceptualisation of audience can be a useful tool. It is a fresh way to approach the "know your audience" conundrum when, say, trying to write a book.
It is fitting that it came up in the context of Koppelman's urging for answers as to how we can be more productive as people and conquer the doubts that can be crippling.
But behind enrolment are the objectives ... and I don't only write that to bring this post full circle. I would describe objectives as goals best aligned with one's strengths. Only certain educationists acknowledge this ( - to borrow from Seth's nomadic nomenclature again - ) "wabi sabi" aspect of teaching. One such educationist with decades of experience noted: two different teachers may end up teaching the exact same course differently.
So this story of enrolment is a story of playing to strengths: not for any form of dominance but merely to share what it is that we can. This in turn suggests creation: to share means that it can be communicated; to be communicated means that it has been conceptualised, and, in a sense, made. Enrolment plays to strengths to bring something into being. 

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