Saturday, 25 August 2012

Reading, Fast and Slow

A week or so ago I finished reading “The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett. There is much in it to recommend it but I can’t say that I enjoyed the read, which is to say that I found it disappointing. Admittedly I’d had very high hopes of what I would find in its pages and this is perhaps not the most favourable attitude to bring to bear upon any new experience, even if it comes highly recommended. Of course I’m sympathetic with the underlying premise and it is undoubtedly well researched and a rich source of ideas and references but ultimately I came away feeling little better armed with insights and arguments for the championship of craftsmanship than I’d felt when I picked it up.

No doubt, with greater patience, I could go back and furnish myself with a fuller repertoire of critical tools and examples, but this leads me to wonder what it was about the initial reading that couldn’t provide such things in the first place? Did I read it too quickly perhaps? (I’m a plodding reader at the best of times so I doubt it), is it, dare I say, a fault in craftsmanship on Sennett’s part or should the responsibility fall more squarely upon my own shoulders, on my readercraft?

Rather than rushing at an answer, perhaps it would be more interesting to take a brief detour via a discussion raised by Sennett in relation to IQ tests. Sennett points out that IQ tests are timed and he cautions that there are occasions when questions demand more consideration than a cursory, albeit correct, answer:

“In the spirit of craftsmanship you want to dwell on this problem, making it more specific, puzzling over it – but time is running out. You have to answer as many questions as you can to raise your score, so you guess and go on. Intuitive leaps that open up a problem are impossible to test using multiple-choice questions.”
“Invidious comparison of speed has distorted the measure of quality.”

Yesterday I chanced upon an almost opposing sentiment on the part of Friedrich Nietzsche:

 “’The ‘Plodders.’ –Persons slow of apprehension think that slowness forms part of knowledge.”

Sure, slowness would seem an unlikely contender as a component of knowledge, but conceived instead as ponderousness the complexion of the statement changes considerably, and whilst ponderousness may not be a part of knowledge either, few would disagree that it forms a venerable route towards it. Moreover, if slowness isn’t part of knowledge, logically speaking nor is rapidity (as Sennett wisely cautions). Ponderousness isn’t exactly slow but it demands whatever time is required. It will not be profitably hurried.

So, it’s not really a case of how fast or how slow you apprehend something that matters but how deeply you consider it, how thoroughly you weigh (ponder) what it has to offer. And this leads me back to The Craftsman.

To have gained the maximum from the book I would indeed have to had read it more closely, to have made more notes and perhaps even to have written my own summaries of the most salient passages. But it’s not a one way street, there is still a requirement that the craft of the reader is met by the craft of the author. If there is too great a disparity between these two forms of craftsmanship - or the purposes that underlie them - then the work of reading will never be as fully satisfying, pleasurable or edifying as might otherwise be the case.

"Admittedly, to practice reading as an art … requires one thing above all, and it is something which today more than ever has been thoroughly unlearnt … it is something for which one must be practically bovine and certainly not a ‘modern man’: that is to say, rumination…" — Friedrich Nietzsche, "On the Genealogy of Morals."

Friday, 10 August 2012

Teaching Through Failure

George Bernard Shaw’s famous dictum.

There are many routes to becoming an expert – some are littered with failures whilst others emerge with surprisingly little effort. Being fascinated by a subject is certainly a great advantage since it predisposes the individual to devote concentrated time and attention to their chosen interest whilst at the same time providing the impetus to overcome any difficulties encountered (and what more lamentable student is there than the one with proven ability but not the slightest enthusiasm?)

Learning can be a struggle or equally it can seep into consciousness unimpeded. Some would call the propensity to absorb a subject or its components without difficulty a “talent” and though this might be true it rarely explains anything about what underlies talent.

As students, most teachers did well in education and whilst they may have struggled with some subjects, their area of specialism is one in which they most likely excelled. Nonetheless, this achievement may have come about through anything from significant difficulties to effortless ease. They may have failed often, occasionally or only rarely.

But who seems likely to make the better teacher – the one who failed often but eventually succeeded or the one who sailed through easily? And who might make the better practitioner?

A teacher may be brilliant in their subject, but might this brilliance not preclude them to some extent from being a great teacher? If they lack experience of common mistakes are they likely to be able to recognise the difficulties and struggles of those who frequently fail? Moreover, if they have little experience of failure themselves, are they likely to empathize with the associated feelings of confusion, helplessness or demoralisation felt by students in this situation and to know how these might best be overcome? 

If Bernard Shaw was right and those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach, perhaps this is all to the better, since those who "can", may well not be able to teach as well as those who cannot.

Or alternatively as Woody Allen once said:
“Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, teach gym.”