Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The virtues in making it up as you go along

When you come to the fork in the road....
A good background on Yogi Berra quotes in general and this one, in particular.

I don't like scripts that I have to follow.  I don't even like them when cooking, where I probably should follow a recipe.  I definitely don't like them in teaching.  I don't really like having a GPS, or that voice in Google Maps, at least most of the time.  I want to do what I want to do.  I don't want to be told what to do by somebody else, definitely not by by some machine.  If there is a chance that I might screw up (there always is) and I'm aware of it ahead of time (not nearly as often) then I might want some help right before the fateful moment.  Making a plan in advance that I will adhere to so as to avoid the screw ups, however, is overkill.  Getting a general idea, sure.  You don't want to do anything totally blind.  Filling that in with detail?  Absolutely not!

Until a few days ago I knew this about me, but I didn't understand why.  Now I have a better idea.  That came from reading this paper by Bruffee (1984), Collaborative Learning and the "Conversation of Mankind."  Let me explain how that came about in a bit. First let me note that Bruffee was a teacher of writing and his piece was meant at the time for others who taught English.  The rest of us, who teach whatever it is that we teach, could learn a thing or two about how to teach our courses better if we first asked, how would a teacher of Writing go about the teaching task in my class?  Only after chewing on that one for a while and coming up with some spark on something new to try should you then ask, now what do I have to do to modify the approach to fit my subject matter?

Bruffee's paper is about that triad: conversation, thinking, and writing.  And his key point, I'm not sure it is original to him (Vygotsky is mentioned somewhere in the paper but I haven't read Vygotsky) is that these are really all the same thing, conversation, a social concept that requires more than one participant.  Thinking is internalized conversation between the thinker and imagined others.  So thinking, often envisioned as a solitary act, is really a social activity and it proceeds according to conventions defined by social discourse.  Writing is then externalizing the thinking, bringing the conversation of the mind out to where others can participate in it.

I so liked this framing.  It definitely captures what I do.  Indeed, it is why I like the slow blogging approach to writing - it is conversational at root.  It may explain why I struggle with digest forms of email, such as from Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle, where each blurb is not conversation but instead more like an ad for some conversation to follow. It's also why I struggle with micro forms like Twitter.  If you have all these different and disjoint blurbs running around in your head, is there a unifying conversation in which to embed them all?  Most of the time to me it just sees like a lot of noise.  Perhaps there is visceral appeal in an individual item.  Lead us not into temptation.  There's already too much of that with the sidebar in Facebook.

I've now reached the fork in the road in this essay. Are we human beings hard wired for conversation, with each of us thrilled to be in a discussion where all of the participants can hold up their end and seem to be doing just that but they are also sympathetic to the others so will help if one stumbles?  Or is it that some people have a predilection for conversation, Bruffee for one, me for another, while other people get their jollies in some other way?  My story is better if conversation is fundamental to the human condition.  But if that is true it remains a puzzle why more people don't engage in conversation more often. My best explanation for that is people often act out of fear first and foremost.  In this case they are fearful that they can't hold up their end of the discussion.  This make sense to me for shy people.  For the gregarious types, it must be something else, though I suspect many of them don't venture beyond very familiar terrain, so that most of their conversations don't go anywhere.

The high point for me in having actual conversation was in college at 509 Wyckoff Road, during my junior and senior years at Cornell.  It's not that I didn't have conversations in high school.  But I had fewer friends to have real talks with so there was less variety in what we talked about, and I don't remember any conversations outside of school in a group setting, while in the kitchen/eating area at Wyckoff Road that was the norm.  It may be that a few close friends is all you need to have a really good talk, though I like to explore different things and I need others to help me get there.  With one close friend you can go deep, but it's less likely that you go wide as well. 

My first few years as an administrator, running SCALE and then CET, I was able to spend a good chunk of the time in conversation.  The Espresso Royale on Sixth and Daniel was my unofficial other office.  I got to talk with a wide variety of people there - faculty, other administrators, teaching with technology types, and once in a while pure technology types too, though many of those discussions happened someplace north of Green Street.  It was either good fortune or me shaping the job to do what I liked.  Over time, there was less of that and more of the dreaded time suck ---- committee meetings.  My calendar became more crowded.  My enjoyment at work started to wane.  One real reason for starting this blog was to get back that sense of joy.  If I couldn't have the type of conversations I'd like to have with others very often, then I'd have them with myself.

There is a question for me whether I would have stuck with the activity had I kept the blog private, in essence a journal or a diary.  Bruffee helped me to understand that one too.  Most of the stuff in this blog is potentially interesting to people I know, or people I know of, or people where I've read what they've written and I'm commenting on that.  This doesn't mean they'll want to read my stuff or like it if they do read it.  But there is that possibility.  So in that way the blogging is holding up my end of a larger conversation.  A private journal is something else entirely.

Now let me get back to making it up as you go along, which I do quite regularly in writing.  So the blogging I do is different that way than how I would write up an economics paper aimed for publication in a refereed journal.  For that sort of thing the thinking would precede the writing.  I would spend an inordinate amount of time working through a model, perhaps 3 months or more.  During that time the model became my universe and I'd try to understand everything that was in it, intuit what my main results would be and how to prove them.  Only as I neared completion of this modeling part would I begin on the writing.  So the writing was other than learning.  It was communicating what I had already learned in a way that might be intelligible to others.

It is quite different with the blogging and with some of my other mental sojourns that I end up not writing about at all.  There it is just exploration via conversation and if the exploration seems promising, I'll start writing then still with a lot to discover ahead of me.  I hope it's now obvious why you have to make it up as you go along this way.  If you do that, there is something to still talk about.  The mystery isn't yet solved.  The verdict hasn't yet been rendered.  The outcome is not known.  (I'm sure there are yet more metaphors here for describing the uncertainty in the process, but I hope the reader gets the idea.)  This is not the skillful writer holding back information till the last possible moment to build suspense.  This is the writer himself not knowing where things will end up other than some vague idea that he will not insist on if he misses that mark.  Keeping the internal conversation going is a way to find out how things will turn out.

This allows the discussion to cover familiar themes, make only a mild departure from prior conversations, and still be absorbed with the discussion because it has a freshness to it that is captivating.  I could not produce a blog post by first making a detailed outline of what I want to cover and then writing paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, adhering to that outline.  And individual sentence or two might be better that way since my full attention could be brought to how to shape what it is that I'm going to say.  But my commitment to the activity would wane well before I'd finish.  That approach with outlines would end up killing my interest in writing.

There's one other thing that making it up as you go along does for you.  If you produce something tolerable that way, it builds some confidence in you to try it again.  Being able to improvise in the moment, I suspect, whether a jazz musician in a band, or a comedic actor doing a sketch with fellow actors, a painter trying a new technique on a canvas, or a slow blogger like me writing on a different theme, is an act of confidence.  If you try it, a spark will come.  Logically, it's not necessarily true.  There are those excruciating times where you fall flat on your face. As an empirical regularity, however, for me with the writing it seems true most of the time, especially if it is open ended when the writing will stop, meaning where there is no day job or other regular obligation that takes precedence.

I do throw out pieces that I've started but that don't seem to have enough oomph in them to make it worthwhile to finish them.  But most of the time I do finish. And when I come back later to reread the piece, I frequently like what I'm reading.  Maybe that's narcissism, though I tend to be quite critical of my own performance when I find it below par.  It's hard to argue for objectivity on this score.  But I'd wager that any one who practiced making it up as they go along and did it for quite some time, they'd start to like the results of what they produced.  And the reason, in case it isn't clear, is that when you have a good conversation it comes to a good conclusion. 

But you also better watch out.  I'm cooking tonight!

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