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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 November 5, 2019

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

    But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

    Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

    1. Always Have a Book

    It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

    Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

    2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

    We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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    Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

    3. Get More Intellectual Friends

    Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

    Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

    4. Guided Thinking

    Albert Einstein once said,

    “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

    Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

    5. Put it Into Practice

    Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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    If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

    In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

    6. Teach Others

    You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

    Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

    7. Clean Your Input

    Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

    I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

    Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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    8. Learn in Groups

    Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

    Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

    9. Unlearn Assumptions

    You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

    Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

    Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

    10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

    Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

    Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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    11. Start a Project

    Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

    If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

    12. Follow Your Intuition

    Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

    Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

    13. The Morning Fifteen

    Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

    If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

    14. Reap the Rewards

    Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

    15. Make Learning a Priority

    Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

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    Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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