Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Change of Pace

"We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there." (Cyril Connolly)

This blog, like my coaching, accepts Heidegger's observation that modern research is, in an essential way, an "ongoing activity" (Betrieb). But, like Heidegger, I worry that the increasingly "businesslike" nature of research will degenerate into "mere busyness", unreflective activity towards the completion of ultimately meaningless "projects". I'm not making a judgment here about all science, just noting a danger. And Heidegger was fond of quoting Hölderlin's lines about the "saving power" that grows where the danger is. So that's a kind of hope, I guess.

My criticism of innovation in higher education is also grounded in this worry. Recently I've rejected everything from promoting great ideas through celebrity tweets to allowing smartphones in exam situations (curiously, both ideas have been promoted by Steve Fuller on Twitter, who I respect a great deal.) Like many others, I'm also vaguely horrified (or intensely anxious) about the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs). There is a basic misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of education in all of these ideas, I suspect.

This will sound a bit naive and certainly old-fashioned, but my view is that the basic instructional situation has to be that of one or two dozen students, some assigned reading (preferably of a canonical kind), and intelligent conversation led by a learned professor. Mass lectures are an expedience, a somewhat necessary evil (or somewhat evil necessity), but they do provide training in sitting still for three quarters of an hour, listening to a knowledgeable person say knowledgeable things, and trying to understand them. It is the experience of listening, and preferably discussing, issues that arise in the context of a shared set of readings, that constitutes the basic "academic" situation and which all scholarship is supposed to support.

Similarly, scholarly writing is a relatively unhurried process of writing down things you know, one claim at a time, with support. (That's what prose paragraphs are for.) Much of your writing process should be devoted, not to discovering what you think, though you are certainly free to write to that end as well, but to presenting clearly and plainly what you think is true and have some reason to believe is true—in a word, what you know. This part of the process should consist of writing things down you've known for while—for weeks, months, and even years—not things you just discovered this morning, and may discover is false by nightfall. Scholarly prose records and conserves knowledge.

The idea of the university is to slow things down. Universities should be places where there is time to read, to write, and to talk things through. They should not be places where "ideas worth spreading" are most efficiently installed in the minds of young people. Nor should they be places where data is efficiently manufactured to support some currently fashionable and convenient truth. They should be sites of learned discourse, intellectual discussion. And there is no other way to teach people to read, write, and discuss, than to have them read and write and discuss. There is no technology that will make these activities obsolete. But there are of course technologies and emergencies of all kinds that can be used to crowd them out, reducing the university sector to just another industry.

I don't promote "research productivity" as such. I don't value activity for the sake of activity. Rather, I help people organize their activities to fight the most deleterious effects of the forces that threaten to turn research into mindless activity, soul-destroying labor. Time is the key. I help people control the pace of their scholarship, the speed of their thinking. Usually, I try to get them to slow down. Ironically, but of course not at all surprisingly, this has the effect of making them more productive.

As a blogger and tweeter, of course, I don't stand aloof from social media. I try to use them for good. And in that spirit I'm going to slow down the pace of my blogging again. From now on, I'll blog only twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, posting at 7:00AM as usual. The idea is not to spend more time on each post, but to spend some time developing my ideas in other media (like books and articles) and then post from that greater depth of understanding. I will continue to tweet new posts, and perhaps some things from the archives, and I will retweet things I find interesting in the usual way.

See you Tuesday!

1 comment:

Константин Кокарев said...

Perfect idea to slow down to become more productive. I use this trick when work terrifies me.