Saturday, August 21, 2010

A stretch of river LIX: On the difficulty of conceiving

Thoreau's shaque d'amour? Naah--but he did do some conceiving of Walden here.

I tried talking to Scruffy about all this on our morning walk, but he was more unresponsive than usual. Sometimes, every once in a while, blogs are man's best friend.

On Monday at 9:00 a.m., I'll meet a class of around 15 unsuspecting freshmen in English Comp. I, and my 18th year as a college professor will begin in earnest. Beyond passing out the syllabus and engaging in some sort of let's-get-acquainted activity and, in some cases, make a first assignment, I don't know what my colleagues do on the first day of class. Aside from our deans' insistence that we have a syllabus ready to pass out on the first day, we're not obligated to do anything. Early on in my career at my previous school, though, I got it in my head that it's a good idea to offer up my version of an "Aims of Education" talk, in which I try to convey, in some way that I hope will be accessible and at the same time intellectually challenging, my sense of what we are talking about when we are talking about Education (as opposed to Training, which is, alas, what has become the default setting for thinking about undergraduate education). This talk changes from year to year, but for the past couple of semesters it has begun this way:

Before anyone arrives, I go to the classroom and write the following on the board:

"Let us spend our lives in conceiving then."

The rest is below the fold.

While we're doing the housekeeping stuff of the first day, I don't say anything about that statement; I just let them think they know what it means, along with whatever attendant lascivious thoughts may come to their mind (I'm not accountable (yet) for what or how they're thinking); if anyone asks about it, I tell them that we'll discuss it later. Then, the housekeeping done, I tell them that that statement is from Thoreau's Walden and that he, a life-long bachelor, wasn't talking about making babies. Rather, he was talking about those other, less-familiar meanings of conceive, "to understand" and/or "to imagine." Then I provide them with the following passage from near the end of chapter 2 of Walden, "Where I Lived, What I Lived For," a bit of writing that never fails to move me:

Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us. The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us. Let us spend our lives in conceiving then. The poet or the artist never yet had so fair and noble a design but some of his posterity at least could accomplish it.

. . . . Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d'appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.(source)

(That second paragraph is just amazing, isn't it?)

But now comes the "difficult" part: No matter the meaning of conceive, each has in common the dynamic of two unalike entities combining to make something that had not previously existed. So far, so good. But even under the best of circumstances, there's more than a little luck involved in that dynamic. Estimates vary widely, but scientists say that anywhere from 30% to well over half of all fertilized human eggs will never result in a full-term baby, only a very small percentage of those "failures" being the result of some sort of human intervention. As all of us who have ever dreamed up some idea or theory that literally or figuratively blows up in our face can attest, the success rate with the non-biological kinds of conceiving are probably not very high, either: speaking from experience, most of my ideas don't even make it to the stage where they have a chance to blow up. In retrospect, that's probably for the best.

In the realm of intellectual conceiving, information-storage and -retrieval devices always mediate this dynamic of unalikes meeting and creating something new, especially in terms of the Internet's ability to access vast quantities of data (see Neil Postman's work--in particular his notion of "information") and, as Nicholas Carr provocatively argues, how we assess the quality of all that information--specifically, what the implications of the 'Net are for those subjects, and they are many, which don't translate easily to web-friendly environments.

It's here that the first-day talks will diverge. Comp I students will get to hear the "spell-checks only check spelling!" speech, along with the story of why "defiantly" has become such a common typo for "definitely;" I'll tell them flat out that such errors mean that they are truly not reading their work when such errors occur. I want them to think about the concept that good writing (read: conceiving) occurs when the subject becomes more important than the writer and that requires patience and focus and attention. Comp II students will get the "we need to think not just about the information from the source but also the source itself" speech: we'll look at and talk about the medieval maps you see here (each reflecting the faith of its maker), a 1530 map (part fairly accurate, part complete guesswork) of the Western Hemisphere that I'd link to if I could find it online; and, at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, a GPS device. I'll try to say some things about context (or its lack, in the case of the GPS device) that will make sense with regard to understanding, mastering, being able to make observations, and writing well about a subject. All that, too, is part of conceiving.

As I said, Scruffy was unresponsive as I talked with him about all this. Perhaps my students will be a bit more engaged.


R. Sherman said...

Query: Do the distractions of our modern world, which increase daily thanks to ever new and wondrous technologies, act as a contraceptive to the process of conceiving you envision?

Asked differently, is the synthesis necessary to create the new impossible in a world of 140 character Tweets?

I don't know. I will say, these questions have been bouncing around my brain for a long time now.


John B. said...

In answer to your first question, there are two answers, both from Carr's article. They're both "bad news" kinds of answers, but one is, I suppose, less-bad.

The first is, yes, that being surrounded by all sorts of devices, each of which can instantaneously provide us with a wealth of audio/visual/textual information and clamoring for the attention of brains that tend to crave novelty in the same way that our bodies are biologically wired to crave sweets and fats, often results in lots and lots of thinking, but it's sloppy or, to follow my own metaphor, ill-conceived. In fact, my first impulse is to say that if these devices are contraceptives, I wish they were a whole lot more effective that they presently are. Or, as I told a colleague of mine as our presenter last week was applauding Kids These Days' ability to "think fast" as they interact with all these devices, "thinking fast does not equal thinking carefully or deeply about something."

But then again, if it weren't for these devices, you and I would almost certainly never have met in person . . . nor would we have been blessed with this . . . or, um, this. Those are small prices to pay for a friendship gained via the exact same means, methinks. I met the future Mrs. in one of those old AOL chatrooms.

The second answer, as Carr also points out, is that in every age in which there's an advancement in text-storage and -retrieval, there's been concern about the possible consequences for/on intellectual work. Carr's first example of this is from Plato's Phaedrus, in which someone expresses the fear that writing things down in books will lead to forgetfulness. Well, yes--in the sense that we're no longer obligated to try and remember everything. So far, so good: we've not fallen apart. But the 'Nets are a different sort of technology--they reward impulse and self-indulgence rather than discipline. Also, the sense of the loss of a common body of cultural/historical knowledge disturbs me as an educator and as someone who fancies himself to be educated. The 'Nets greatly facilitate tribalism--"I don't like that guy's ideas (or, for that matter, his version of the day's events); I'll find someone else more to my liking."--which is unhealthy politically, and certainly when, in cases of genuine urgency, some sort of broad consensus is needed. A diffuse media may hinder rather than help, come, say, the next 9/11-like event.

Anyway. Thanks for the questions. I'll let y'all know how things go this coming week.