Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The reading habits of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Where do the allusions, ideas, images, and thought-fragments that populate the mind and the writings of a great thinker come from? We can often find out by consulting a biography:

From John Livingston Lowes' The Road to Xanadu - A Study in the Ways of the Imagination:

How did Coleridge actually read books? Few more significant questions can be asked about any man, and about Coleridge probably none. Coleridge...was reading Maurice, but he was doing more: he was also going back at first hand to the sources of Maurice's information. He made, accordingly, a memorandum of another book to read.

Coleridge (at least during the years of the Note Book) read with an eye which habitually pierced to the secret spring of poetry beneath the crust of fact. And this means that items or details the most unlikely might, through some poetic potentiality discovered or divined, find lodgement in his memory.
Coleridge not only read books with minute attention, but he also habitually passed from any book he read to the books to which that book referred. And that, in turn, makes it possible to follow him into the most remote and unsuspected fields. And his gleanings from these fields, transformed but recognizable, will meet us again and again as we proceed. For to follow Coleridge through his reading is to retrace the obliterated vestiges of creation.
When Coleridge once started on a book, he was apt to devour it whole.
We have to do, in a word, with one of the most extraordinary memoires of which there is record, stored with the spoils of an omnivorous reading, and endowed in to the bargain with an almost uncanny power of association.
Even you and I, at vivid moments, know the sudden leap of widely sundered recollections, through some flash of association, into a new and sometimes startling unity. And that, assuredly in no less degree, is also the experience of poets.

John Livingston Lowes
--The Road to Xanadu - A Study in the Ways of the Imagination

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A glimpse into a great mind: Jonathan Z. Smith

[Editor's note: One of my purposes in writing
Wide Awake Minds is to publicly recognize and draw attention to intellectual and academic achievement. In the coming months, I hope to highlight the achievements of many thinkers and self-educators by sharing excerpts from their books and interviews that highlight their love of learning, their commitment to education, and their individual learning styles and research methods.]

Jonathan Z. Smith is a historian of religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

(Via his faculty website:) Smith's research has focused on such wide-ranging subjects as ritual theory, Hellenistic religions, nineteenth-century Maori cults, and the notorious events of Jonestown, Guyana. Some of his works include Map Is Not Territory; Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown; and To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual.

From Smith, Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion:

All of these inchoate musings became clearer when I accidentally came across a copy of a journal with (Ernst) Cassirer's 1945 article, "Structuralism in Modern Linguistics," in a 10 cents barrel in a Fourth Avenue used bookstore. ...I don't think I had ever been as impressed with a mind at work as I was with Cassirer's.
The more than thirty years I have spent teaching at the University of Chicago has defined my work. ...The University's commitment to letting a mind go where it will resulted in a diversity of appointments, until the ultimate freedom, granted in 1982, of being without departmental affiliation as the Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professor of the Humanities.
Moving to Chicago in the late 60s was to enter into Mircea Eliade's orbit at the height of his influence. Eliade had been, for me, a model of what it might be to be a historian of religion. He seemed to have read everything to be able to place the most variegated data within coherent structures. While a graduate student, I set out to read nearly every work cited by Eliade in his extraordinary bibliographies in Patterns in Comparative Religion, hiring tutors to teach me the requisite languages. These readings constituted my education in the field.
It was during this period of "playing in the stacks," supported by a Yale Junior Sterling Fellowship, that, having read John Livingstone Lowes's description of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's reading habits (Lowes, The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination [1927; reprint, New York, 1959], 30-36), I developed a set of reading rules I have followed ever since. These include: always read the entire chapter of a book in which a reference you are looking for occurs, then read at least the first and last chapters; always skim the entire volume of a journal in which you are seeking a particular article, then read the tables of contents for the entire run of the journal; after locating a particular volume on the shelves, always skim five volumes to the left and to the right of it; always trace citations in a footnote back to their original sources. ...Later, I added: do not teach or discuss a figure unless you have read the total corpus of their work as available to you.
The label 'historian' is the one I am most comfortable with.... Whether global in their reach or preoccupied with one limited segment of human activity, historians share an uncommon faith in the revelatory power of a telling detail, a small item that opens up a complex whole and that thereby entails a larger set of intellectual consequences.

From Smith, "The Necessary Lie: Duplicity in the Disciplines":

When we conceal from our students (the hard work of academic research), that which is actually the way we earn our bread and butter, we produce a number of consequences. I remember testifying once before the California state legislature and facing a legislator who wanted to know why professors should be paid to read novels, when the legislator himself read novels on the train every day. Well, that was the price of our disguising the work that goes into things.

There are, I think, more serious educational consequences. If we present the work as perfect or as work without a revisionary history, then we present a work that no student could hope to emulate. Indeed it serves, if it serves at all, as a standard for how far below that standard the student falls. If we present the material without displaying the effort that goes with it, students tend to conclude that things are true or false, or alternatively, that it's entirely a matter of their opinion whether the object is exemplary. In that case, what we have is a contrast between his or her feelings and my feelings. Thus, in the name of simplification, what we really end up doing is mystifying the objects we teach at the introductory level.

Excerpts from an interview with Smith conducted by Chicago Maroon reporter Supriya Sinhababu on 6/2/08:

SS: How about e-mail?

JS: I've never used a computer.

SS: Never?

JS: No.

SS: So do you typewrite all your papers?

JS: Yup. Or handwrite them. ...I take Marx very seriously, I think [the computer] alienates the worker from his production.... With a typewriter, I hit a key, and it goes bam. I understand that: I made that letter happen.

SS: What got you interested in the religions that you study?

JS: Because they're funny. They're interesting in and of themselves. They relate to the world in which I live, but it's like a fun house mirror: Something's off. It's not quite the world I live in, yet it's recognizable. So that gap interested me. And so I specialized in religions that are dead, which has the great advantage that nobody talks back. No one says, "That's not what I heard last Sunday!" Everybody's dead. And I like that. Now, I sometimes have to deal with religions that keep going. And they're more problematic because then you deal with people who believe things.
I also think that whether you like it or you don't like it, (religion has) been a part of the world, and remains a part of the world that has a lot to do with what people do. And so I think if you think it's a worthwhile task to try to understand other people, then you probably haven't given up on trying to understand yourself. ...Whether (or not) an individual sees themselves as religious, there is still enough embedded in the culture in which they live (that), to some degree, the eyeglasses through which they look at the world are shaped by those religions.

SS: You mentioned that your teaching style is peculiar. Can you describe what you mean by that?

JS: ...I try, I suppose, very hard — someone once said religion is a topic you have to un-teach before you teach, because in some sense, everybody comes in with an idea in their head, so they're obviously sure that they know something about it. Your job is to suggest, without being incredibly in their face, that they don't. So you have to take it apart, respectfully, but nonetheless take it apart.
For (students) the word belief means only religious. I'd never quite realized this before. They don't have beliefs about science, or beliefs about Obama or beliefs about War and Peace. They only have beliefs about religion. If you say "what do you think about..." that's not beliefs! So somehow beliefs isn't about "thinking about," first of all; that's the first thing I learned from my students.
SS: So do you consider yourself one of those people who's in-between [in terms of religious belief]?

JS: Oh, I would hope so. In between is where you always are. If you want one word from me I'm a translator. That's what I do. I translate in both directions.
Martin Luther says, "What think you of Jesus Christ?" is the only question! Well that's the only question, but what hundreds of questions are wrapped up in that question?
SS: I don't know if you if you've heard of this website — probably not, but it's called Ratemyprofessors.com, and your reviews are glowing.

JS: I've never heard of such a thing. And I don't like the idea. ...

Well I think [Ratemyprofessors.com] is an awful idea. And what good does it do? I mean, I've been married for nearly 50 years, I'm not on the market. What other reason would one have for such a thing? ...

No, I've been spared much by never—I've never seen the Internet. And my son endlessly explains to me that I should say that rather than "I've never seen the Web." I haven't seen that one either! He says I sound very ignorant if I say I've never seen the Web....

One (college) major is bad enough. I would like to abolish majors altogether. So two is unbelievable. ...Majors I think are of no use to anybody.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Interview: Texas A & M Neuroscientist and Self-Educator Dr. Bill Klemm

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator (interviewee): Dr. Bill Klemm

Self-educator’s location: Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

Date: 15 December 2009

Dr. Bill Klemm calls himself the "memory medic," and the label is emblazoned on the lab coat he wears as he goes about his business as a semi-retired - but quite busy - Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University. Dr. Bill's extraordinary CV, learning and memory blog, and faculty website reveal not only a scholar who is deeply concerned with adding to the sum of scientific knowledge about all things related to the brain, but also an educator who is committed to taking that knowledge and acting on it by sharing his discoveries with others.

WAM: Over the years, your activities have included writing (12 books and countless articles), teaching, mentoring, obtaining over $2 million in grants for your research, speaking at hundreds of engagements, and serving in and then doing research for the Air Force. What are you up to now that you are "semi-retired?" What activities and organizations do you dedicate the most time to these days?

BK: First, I keep up with the memory research literature and am always on the lookout for reports that have practical applications for everyday memory. When I find such publications, I summarize the "take home" lessons in my "Improve Your Learning and Memory" blog. My other main activities include working with school districts and teachers to improve science education and writing books (my current one, being shopped now by an agent, attempts to explain thinking in terms of biology: The Ghost Materializes: How The Brain's Three Minds Think. So much for "retirement!"

WAM: How did all this begin? How did you become so interested in the brain and in learning and memory?

BK: My late wife always said she noticed that many scientists work in areas where they have a personal medical problem. Well.... But I think I picked brain research because it is the ultimate intellectual challenge.

WAM: Your blog on learning and memory is filled with useful tips and strategies for learners. If you could pick out a few "top tips" for Wide Awake Minds readers - for self-educators to use in their own lives and for educators to share with their students - which would you choose? What are the most important things we can do to improve our ability to learn?

BK: 1) Avoid interferences of any kind immediately after the time you are exposed to new information you want to remember (this especially means don't multi-task). Rehearse that information several times (at least) before you move on to something else. 2) Wherever possible convert words or numbers into mental images. 3) Stay healthy, reduce stress, and get enough sleep.

WAM: Your writings about how to improve one's memory and learning ability are aimed, naturally, at those who are inclined to care about their own memory and learning; the people most likely to read your blog and your books are self-educators. But educators working in K-12 settings - and even in undergraduate settings - must constantly confront the question of motivating students. How do we turn students into self-educators? How can we get them to want to learn - both in their school years and throughout their lives? How can we help students overcome what you have termed "mental laziness"?

BK: Motivation is everything when it comes to learning. If you want to learn, you will. Nobody can force learning down your throat without your active support.

WAM: Are there any particular experiences or accomplishments in your life that stand out as particularly meaningful to you, or that had a particularly significant impact on your growth as a scholar, intellectual, educator, and human being?

BK: Most basically, my father was very demanding when I was a child. He expected nothing less than my best, and within certain limitations of being a normal child, I tried to accommodate him. Finally, I realized I needed my own goals and needed to live up to standards that I constructed, many but not all of which were similar to his. In later life, I learned to be more introspective and better at taking responsibility for my weaknesses. This led to my recent book: Blame Game. How To Win It."

WAM: You are currently writing an essay on the effects technological immersion is having on young people. What are your thoughts on that? What role should technology play in K-12 schools? Do you have any advice for parents who are trying to understand and monitor their kids' passion for cell phones, social networking, online gaming, and similar technology?

BK: I wrote an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle pointing out that many modern technologies have the power to seduce youngsters into self-absorption. Once seduced, such children can acquire delusions about their self-importance, a sense of entitlement, a false sense of merit, illusory optimism, disrespect for others, short attention spans, mental laziness, sound-bite thinking, superficial interests, and a big waste of time. I received phone calls and e-mails from older people who thought I was a sage. Youngsters thought I was out of my mind.

WAM: Should adults be concerned about the role of technology in their own lives? It seems to me that the Internet has had both very positive and very negative effects on education, productivity, interpersonal interaction, and social norms. As a neuroscientist who is active both on the web (with a blog and several websites) and in "traditional," community-based organizations such as your local church and many scholarly organizations, I wonder whether you might have particularly interesting insights on these issues.

BK: Technology should always be thought of as a tool. Only use it to the extent it works for you. It is very easy for even adults to get caught up in wasting time with communications technology.

WAM: Thank you, Bill, for your time and for the good work you do.

If you enjoy the interviews, commentary, and profiles you find on Wide Awake Minds, consider helping to build an online community of people passionate about learning, teaching, and self-education.

On the sidebar of this blog, you'll find an option to "Follow" the blog using Google Friend Connect - anyone with a Google account can become a follower with one click. It's an easy way to show your support and interest.

And, if you have a Facebook account, here is a link to our Facebook page, which you can "become a fan" of to show your support, discuss issues related to education and self-education with others, and receive updates in your Facebook newsfeed. Thanks, as
always, for reading!