Inside and Outside a Text

I apoligize in advance for the mushyness that is the following entry.

From my last blog, I think the most interesting and least re-hashed consideration is the distinction between states of being within a discipline, meta- the discipline, or altogether outside of it. Like, if I’m supposed to write an essay, I start out procrastinating – that is outside it entirely. I watch a few episodes of Dr. Who, make some tea, read a blog, admire a felt doll, go for a walk, and so on. When the pressure builds to to the point where I don’t figure I can get away with procrastinating, I do meta-essay stuff, because it’s less work than the actual essay. I open up a word-editing program, format the page, figure out what kind of font I’m going to use, save the document format, write an outline, write a complaint about how I have nothing to say, read what somebody else has to say on the topic, and so on. But when I’ve done that as long as I can and still maintain any self-respect, there’s a change of state that happens. Instead of thinking about writing an essay, all of a sudden I’m thinking about Grisilde. But that’s difficult to maintain. I’m not sure that I can do it for more than half an hour. Then I fiddle again for a while. This is not the same state as it takes to write an opinion blog – which is just my normal state of mid, organized a little more clearly and typed out. It’s also not the same state as just reading. It’s an interaction and organization of what’s in my head and what’s on the page – and there’s something important – essential! about that state to learning. Inside the text, like when reading, but also outside commenting on it – at the same time, or in fast alternation. It’s the same in a good discussion, except that it’s not so sustained, because there are so many people contributing.

I’m writing about this because in classroom teaching, it is just this state that is rebuffed by everything about the situation. That happened to me in math class all the time – the textbook keeps pushing me out, and I don’t have enough interest – or virtue – or understanding – to fight against that. So instead I read meta-math books that don’t push me out – ones that explain how delightful math would be if only we understand it – and use lovely metaphors and visions of order and symmetry. But if in the midst of that I find an equation, it pushes me out again – I can’t rightly read it in the same state of mind; so usually  don’t read it at all.

People talk about how art is a right-brain dominant activity, and too much talk about it pushes people right out. Questions of “what’s the angle of that line,” or “perhaps that line is up a bit more” can be sustained while actually drawing things; questions of why we’re doing this, or what it means, or what it says about society aren’t. They’re important, but they push us out of actually drawing or painting.

Well, in a high school classroom there are all these things pushing us out of the thing we’re studying – either completely out, or out to a different, less crucial level. A standard pushes attention out. Talking about essays may be necessary – but it tends to distract us from actually writing essays. Standards may or may not be helpful – but as they do not actually talk about real things, they push us out of the thing they’re trying to point us to. So in our classes here all we need to have is a table, a chair, and a book – perhaps a pen and paper. The only essential thing in the classroom is the book. Opening comments – meta-stuff about when we’re reading what, or what essay is due when – takes about five minutes.

In the dialogue I wrote about a class in TLT, the main point was that every comment worked to push us out of the subject – over and over again. Why are we doing this? Does it have to be perfect? I think I’ve done this before! When can I use the computer? and so on – not one question about the thing itself. Our minds tend to do that anyway – they usually need a lot of encouragement to do otherwise. “And now, back to the text…”

Certainly in my case – and in my observation of most other people as well – the proportion of time spend on meta- stuff and on the actual question at hand is completely absurd. In classrooms it ends up being something like 80-20 in favor of out-of-text type stuff. Often worse. By that I don’t necessarily mean irrelevant stuff. But if I’m working on an essay, for instance, all the time spent thinking about mechanics of essay writing is out-of-text; the time spent on actually writing, or thinking out what I’m writing, or talking about the content is in-text, in my meaning. I *write* about a page an hour – when I’m writing – (this doesn’t count; I write this at twice that, because it’s just thinking on paper) – but I feel vaguely guilty for not writing, or talk about writing, or think about writing, or tinker with the mechanics of writing, or procrastinate from writing  at a rate of about a page for every four hours. That’s completely unreasonable. For every minute I spend actually learning Greek, I think five times that it would be nice to know Greek.

That’s something in favor of a lecture – we’re kind of forced to keep up. The same with a lab class; people can actually notice if we’re sitting there thinking about thinking about wishing that we really believed that we would start any minute now.

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4 thoughts on “Inside and Outside a Text

  1. I really enjoy your thoughts about the psychology of doing intellectual work–but isn’t it odd that in actual high school classes the teachers have to constantly iterate “this is what we’re doing”, “this is what we’re doing”–and if you’re being observed as a teacher you better have that stuff written on the whiteboard and be following it. It has always been my tendency to say to myself and those who would question things about the educational process (students asking “why do we have to take AIMS tests and you never did–why can’t we watch movies sometimes?) that “things have gotten so bad in education in general that the administrations have to keep us under their collective thumb)–well, I never said it that baldly before but I suppose that is what I think—-and what do administrators have to use anyway in their determination to have control of the education process (and I would suppose that almost always their intentions are good)? They have to always pay attention to the meta processes because what do they know about teaching quadratic equations or how to balance a chemical equation or any of the infinite number of educational facts or problems confronting teachers and students.

    • On that last comment, about having to look at meta-processes because they don’t understand what’s going on otherwise… one of the funny thing about St. Johns is that the tutors aren’t actually specialists. That means that if they stay here long enough eventually every tutor teaches every course – or at least most courses. They can do that because it’s liberal arts, and the students know how to *be* students, and also because great books have to be at least partially accessible to any intelligent reader. So sometimes they’re leading discussions on books they haven’t read. And except for the dean and the president all their administration positions are open only to tutors. There are positives and negatives to that – someone said that one class of January Freshmen started out with 23 students, and ended up with four. Apparently undergrad summer school (only open to January Freshmen, so that they’re caught up with their classmates for the Fall) is majorly intense.

      I believe Theodore Sizer is in favor of a system that’s not quite so integrated, but does allow for breaking up high schools less into specialties than into groups of students, with teachers teaching perhaps two subjects. But high school teachers are expected to teach six classes at a time – which is absurd. I wonder if it would be possible to set up a high school more like St John’s, without crushing students in work?

    • Yeah, that sounds familiar. Keep in mind, I was working from experiences mostly in bad schools. At Salpointe I’d say we spent perhaps 60% of class time actually working on art – at Pima maybe 70%, and I’d reverse it entirely at St. John’s, with 85% of time in-class spent “in-text,” so in the case of classrooms there’s a great difference between good and bad schools/classes.

      What I mean is, say we’re studying (to use an example I’ve tried teaching) linear perspective. “in-text” in that instance would be time spent either talking about the actual mechanics of perspective, looking at how it works in famous artworks, and actually drawing in perspective. “out-of-text” is things like getting out paper and pencils, sharpening pencils, complaining that the school does not supply adequate erasers, defending why artists might want to know how to use perspective, keeping students from getting on the computers, walking out of class, spitting into trash cans, interrupting for no good reason; maintaining that, yes, they should use the ruler, not just guesstimate, etc., etc. So during a 50 minute period, we spent perhaps 10 minutes actually learning and applying perspective with any concentration, and 40 minutes doing all that other junk.

      EDIT: I just read the article you mentioned. In schools that are actually decent (not TLT or SCUVHS), I’m not sure whether the 80/20 rule would apply or not, because it fails to take into account the dynamic of conscious/subconscious. In creative situations (and I would argue that most important processes of learning are creative – even if that’s creative interpretation of literature, or creatively integrating a scientific fact into one’s understanding of the universe), I’ve had professors argue, it’s necessary to hove some kind of interplay between the conscious, logical modes of the mind, and the sub-conscious, intuitive parts; so that, for instance, someone writing a story might come up with a tentative idea, then keep it in the back of his mind for a week or two, imagining it in different ways, and then actually write it – and it may be different and better than it would have been if he had simply written it as soon as he thought up the idea. But in the case of these students, I don’t think they were really letting perspective percolate, or do anything else except fade into nothingness.

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