Friday, February 6, 2009

Facebook in Focus: Some Thoughts on Learning how to Learn.

This will be long, and it is more musing than argument, more reflection than rhetorical performance. If that sort of thing is irksome for you, or if you like whizz-bang conclusions and "points" and stuff, well, this may not be the post (or the blog) for you.

I have been thinking a lot this week on the schism between the rhetorically celebrated, as opposed to the actually demonstrated values of American life. In particular I've been thinking about the role of education in society and the extent to which it is devalued and viewed as only a means to an end, that end being the accumulation of more dollars. Yes, of course more dollars are important, and I realize that, from some perspectives, critiquing the pursuit of wealth as an end unto itself might seem a hopelessly privileged stance. But it seems pretty clear that the accumulation of wealth hasn't given America its dream back, right? What I hope for from public education is that it can do something in the way of improving the right now--the immediate circumstances--of enough people that lasting change, critical-of-the-status-quo change, is possible. Obama seems like a good start.

It's a little bit hard to justify--in some respects, anyway--wanting to set out into the world as an English teacher. The idea of divining meaning from books and teaching writing in an increasingly digital and impersonalized world of truncated communications seems kind of quaint sometimes. And I occasionally get all insecure and think that people like my friend Marco and his f&!#$%g independent study in linear algebra (Sheesh...) are the really smart ones...because they are, but that ain't the point.

The thing that has begun to be most central to my thoughts these days regarding the importance of teaching, in the Humanities in particular, is the simple and difficult process of learning to focus. And in a sometimes indirect, sometimes not sort of way, I think that blogging, Facebook and digital socializing in general contribute to this, even as we practice these modes of communication in a distracting medium that is constantly reminding us that there is something else we could be doing, something else to watch.* Despite the fact that the default mode of communication through instantly available means--chat, Facebook, text-messaging, etc--is abbreviated, non-unique and in many ways lacks the personality of person-to-person speech, there are happenings like the recent "25 things" chain letter on Facebook that really offer an opportunity for composing one's self, literally, in an extended, written format. The opportunity to deliberate on what you write, and yet to experience the relatively instant gratification of friends' comments and such is great, and I think it is one of the things hinting at online social utilities actually beginning to live up to their name. The sense of community on Facebook has been a little more intimate this past week.

Obviously this is a choice, and OMG the reality of, like, wait brb.....ok, umm what was I saying? Oh yea, got 2 run, wcb l8r. Sure, we can do that if we want to. Or we can read one another, our profiles, pictures, notes, preferences and status updates, like we would any other text, and be changed in the process. Changed not only personally but as a member of a social group, learning collectively and from each other that there is room in our busy days to reflect, to emote, to celebrate, to compose.

The reason I think this is important, and the reason I think it belongs in a conversation about education is that the opportunities for extended reading and writing--long form written interactions--are becoming fewer and fewer in many areas of modern life. There is an "efficiency" expected of work-related communication and even social messaging that is the death of creative speech acts. And, back to focus, I really believe that the opportunity for complex, frustrating, time-consuming thought presented by textual learning is a singularly important aspect of learning to focus and to analyze. The moment of aporia, of not getting it; the experience of experiencing yourself, with a book, being confused*, is the foundation of research skill, and more complex thought. It is the initial hurdle of understanding one's self as a learner. Removing the time-consuming and sometimes frustrating parts of the process of textual learning from that process is like removing the sore muscles from weight lifting. I think there is a real danger in becoming so accustomed to understanding what we read and having our own ready answers so quickly that true understanding of complex subject matter, which takes time, is endangered.

Learning is slow, it takes time. And I think that to a certain extent the deeply ingrained strain of American anti-intellectualism points to a seemingly irreconcilable tension between the capitalist drive for efficiency and the need for the individuals learning how to function as members of that system to sit still long enough to understand their roles in society and the broader implications thereof.

I struggle all the time, in a cage match with my inner Calvinist sort of way, with the notion of thought-labor. I get restless and develop niggling, guilty inner narratives about what I ought to be doing instead of reading and writing for work as a grad student. I never felt the need to justify my labor to myself as a fry cook, or dishwasher, or day-laborer or counselor, because I was preoccupied with the business of task performance. And when engaged in the business of task performance, it is really easy to be duped into thinking you're actually up to something.

One of my favorite teacher quotations comes from Mary Rose O'Reilly in her book The Peaceable Classroom where she describes her pedagogical philosophy as having derived from the moment she asked herself the question: is it possible to teach English so that people will stop killing each other? Any attempt, sincere or theoretical to answer the question rhetorically is beside the point. The question makes meaning for each new class, each new assignment, each new act of service. I haven't found my mission statement yet, but I want to believe, in fact may be coming to believe, that teaching focus--teaching the ability to sit still with new, uncomfortable, hard-to-reconcile-with-what-you-already-know sorts of information--may in fact be one of the more direct means toward bringing a pedagogy of personal and communal reflectivity-toward-change into the world.

Thanks for reading,


* Statements marked with an asterix are conceptually attributable to Richard E. Miller. Many of my thoughts on the subject of focus as an educational value, and on what Miller calls the New Humanities stem from presentations I have heard Miller give or participate in. Such is the inspirational character of conferences, when they're flowing well, that one idea gets hard to distinguish from the next. So I have attempted to credit Miller for the bits of my thoughts on these various subjects that seem more or less directly attributable.


  1. Hm. I think about this stuff a lot. Thanks for thinking about it too.


  2. I have a friend who went from no-college, to college, to law, and suddenly to thinking about a doctorate in law. She is all twisted up about having to accept being an academic.

    Which is strange for me, because i'm struggling with the idea that i may leave the cradle of academia and do something with out research in the title.

    Part of my belief in academia is that it is the academics of the world who push us (as Americans or humans) to examine our boundaries. Even in our modern comercialized academic system the university research labs pave the way for technological breakthroughs and philosophical changes of heart. As much as i respect that workers who turn theory into reality, and apply philosophy to policy, i respect the academics whose very ideal is to question everything we know.