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Butterflies in the Mind: Taking the Long View

Butterflies in the Mind: Taking the Long View

Butterflies in the Mind: Taking the Long View

    This is not a post about teaching, but teaching is what I do and what I know best, and this post is about thinking about what we do.

    People often wonder if I find it frustrating to be a university instructor. I teach topics that students resist a lot – in Women’s Studies, I teach with an explicitly political edge, challenging students to face up to the realities of social and economic injustices; in anthropology, I have to bring students to see the value of practices that they find disgusting or blasphemous (or both). While I have my share, maybe even more than my share, of students who really “get it”, I also have a good number of students who resist me at every turn, who are personally affronted by nearly every thing I say.

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    “Don’t you sometimes feel like you’re wasting your time?” people ask me. “Doesn’t it feel futile when they don’t change at all?”

    The answer is that no, I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time. Not in the least. Granted, it can be frustrating in the heat of the moment. Students often look to their professors for truths that we simply can’t give – what we can give are outlines of various theories and arguments and help lead our students to understand their ramifications. And in the absence of hard, fast truths, some students just shut down, and it’s a real bear to re-engage them.

    But for the most part, even the most resistant student doesn’t discourage me. A couple years ago I had a student who expressed his resentment of every single thing I taught by reading a paper in class. It was, of course, intended as an insult, but I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. I consider that one of my highest successes.

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    Wait, what? How can a student ignoring me be a success? Simple: I take a longer view than 16 weeks (the length of a semester).

    Everyone knows about the Butterfly Effect, right? The idea is that in a interconnected chaotic system, like the global environment, small events can turn into big consequences. A butterfly flapping its wings in China might whip up the tiniest of atmospheric disturbances which, as it interacts with the forces in the environment, is magnified and intensified until it sets off a massive hurricane in the Caribbean.

    Teaching is like that. We set off butterflies in the mind, whose wing-flaps have little effect today and tomorrow but which, somewhere down the line, might blossom into a full-blown mental hurricane – a brainstorm, if you will.

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    (A professor I knew in grad school preferred a somewhat more military metaphor: mind-bombs. We plant landmines, in the hopes that someday our students will stumble across them and *BOOM!* I find the image of explosions in my students heads a little overly graphic for my own taste; butterflies are, I think, a little less objectionable.)

    In the long view, I don’t have to be convincing. I don’t even have to be right (though I like to think I am more often than I’m not). Being convincing, being right – these are beside the point. The real outcome of the work I do day in and day out will come months, years, even decades down the road, and I won’t be around to see it. My job, as I see it, is simply to cultivate butterflies – to lay out a set of facts, theories, and ideas and make sure my students know what they are. The ones that resist, the ones that are so deeply offended, they’ll have their whole lives to think about this stuff, to argue with it, to reason out why it doesn’t apply to them or to the people around them.

    In case you’re thinking that I can take this fuzzy-headed view towards my work because I teach in the fuzzy-headed liberal arts, think again. I was an engineering major lo these many years ago, and while my professors may not have realized it, they too took the long view. The professor of fluid dynamics doesn’t stop to ask whether her student will be building missiles or wheelchairs, machine guns or microsurgical instruments, she just teaches the physics. She, too, is cultivating butterflies.

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    Here comes the point: we are all cultivating butterflies. To some extent, everything we do has the potential to set off a chain reaction that results in something HUGE months, years, decades in the future. And most of the time, we don’t have any idea, can’t have any idea, what that butterfly moment is or what it will result in.

    What we can know is that we’re doing it. That the work we do today isn’t just about today, that it doesn’t have to be finished, closed-off, polished and perfected and done. That it’s ok to leave things open-ended, to let them unfold like a butterfly’s wings as she emerges from her cocoon, to let them surprise us with their iridescent beauty – or disappoint us with their moth’s-wing drabness.

    Far from frustrating me, the part that’s out of my control is what makes it possible for me to do the job in front of me. If I had to “convert” all my students, I couldn’t do it. It’s the uncertainty of what they’ll do with what I can teach them, even the ones that hate me and hate the material and hate the class – it’s that uncertainty that makes it possible to teach at all. What about you? How do you cultivate butterflies – or plant mines – in your job? Or in your life?

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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