Thursday, June 27, 2013

First things first?

It doesn't sound a good thing to do: start at the beginning and work forward. You don't want to work backwards?
I came across this quote from from the Folk anthologist Harry Smith many years ago (in Stephan Grossman's Contemporary Ragtime Guitar Oak Publications 1972) and it has made a lasting impression on me.

When you were in school you were taught to be a study slave. Read this. Do that chapter. Write an essay on blah blah. And when you were given a list of things to do, as a good student you followed the list and ticked off each thing as you did it.

Sometimes college professors behave as if you were still in school. But you are no longer a study slave. It is your choice to be here and you can drop out at any time. The key to self-motivation is getting rid of your slave mentality.

Here's what I wrote, back in 2004:
Only book worms start at the beginning and work all the way through. Thumb your way backwards and forwards until the pages drop out; fill the margins with pencilled commentary; start at the last chapter and work backwards — anything to break the spell that the writer is attempting to cast on you. Refuse to play along.
I was writing about philosophy but this works for any subject where you have to read.

With maths and science it is a bit different but here too you have the choice to begin at page 1, or dip in and look for the interesting stuff first.

Who needs books anyway now that we have the internet? Problem is, it's not so easy to find stuff you can rely on because there's so much rubbish out there. Which explains why the first place every student goes to is Wikipedia. But consider: if everyone else in your class is looking at the same article, what chance is there that you will do work that is better than average or mediocre?

Besides, what fun is there in doing what everyone else does? You are not a slave, remember?

So here we are. You are sitting at your desk staring at a big pile of books. Pick the one in the middle and open it somewhere in the middle. And then start reading. Form a hypothesis of what the book is about and test it by opening the book randomly in other places. Look at the index, the chapter headings. If you see something familiar, look that up on the internet.

By the time you start seriously reading that book you will probably have worked out two thirds of what the writer has to say.

And don't be afraid to read stuff that isn't on your reading list. Spend a couple of hours browsing in a second-hand bookshop. More than once, I have found that special volume that has changed the course of my life.

Geoffrey Klempner

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A new beginning

I wanted to write an antidote to the kinds of thing you usually see on book shelves (and blog posts) which have nothing to do with real people — 'the joy of study', 'improve your mind', 'unlock your hidden potential', etc. etc.

For most real people, study is a means to an end, a necessary evil. You grit your teeth and knuckle down.

Study isn't always, or usually, meant to be joyful. And it is dubious whether one can do much to improve upon one's natural talents. There will always be people smarter than you — and also dumber, of course.

But there are things you can do to make the experience less painful and frustrating. It is possible to make more efficient of your time and abilities.

As this blog is inspired by the Pathways project (sign up now!) you might guess that some of the things I am going to say are about how you can improve your performance by teaming up with others, with a study partner or study group.

However, the primary focus is on you and your feelings and attitudes towards the subject you have chosen, be it geography, or physics, or psychology, or dentistry, or history, or social work, or... whatever.

My own area of study — as it happens — is philosophy. It's probably true that most people who study philosophy as a main subject are interested in it, often keenly. But then again, there are many other students taking philosophy courses as a mandatory requirement who absolutely hate the subject. I am writing for you too.

So come into my library.

I've chosen pleasant surroundings (found in a Google picture search) because these things are important. It is important to feel that you have some control over where and how you do your studying.

A room of one's own is highly desirable but if that isn't possible then you need to spend time searching for a place that you can feel comfortable in. But not too comfortable. You've work to do!

I generally like silence. But sometimes one needs noise, distraction in order to chase away negative thoughts. Rock music. Or a noisy restaurant. Or the drone of cars speeding by. If you are stuck inside, consider uploading these onto your computer as ambient background sounds.

It is perfectly possible to study sitting in front of the TV if that works for you. Most TV programs don't deserve more than a quarter or third of your brain at most.

This is your task for today:

If you study in your own room, then rearrange it. Get your desk looking like a place where real work is going to be done. Get rid of all the crap and give yourself some space to arrange papers and books etc.

Or, if you use a library then take time to find a good place to sit. I always used to love the stack, down in the basement with neon strip lights and the smell of old books that no-one ever reads.

Now, just sit and enjoy the ambience. You are not working today, just getting used to the idea.

We'll start tomorrow!

Geoffrey Klempner