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What’s Your Territory?

What’s Your Territory?

What's Your Territory?

    I’m pretty shy. You wouldn’t know it to watch me – I’ve learned how to handle most of the superficial stuff that makes up day-to-day interactions –  but deep inside I’m pretty scared of talking to strangers or making a spectacle of myself.

    But when I walk into my classroom, I’m completely at ease. I’ve never experienced more than a second’s hesitation in front of my students. At the beginning of every semester I walk into my classroom, look at the 33 strangers looking back at me – none of whom have any particular desire to be there, and wouldn’t if my class didn’t fulfill a requirement – walk straight to my lectern, and start talking. “Hi, my name is Dustin, this is Women’s Studies 113, and I’ll be your professor. Let’s get started."

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    Easy as pie. I don’t stutter, I don’t "um" and "uhh”. I don’t fumble around for words. I don’t have any of the nervous tics that I have whenever I approach strangers outside of the classroom.

    Why is that?

    The reason is simple: I own my classroom. It’s my territory. Not literally, of course, but figuratively – these students are coming to me in my space, and within that space I am totally confident.

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    What makes it mine is not the space itself – the classrooms I’m assigned change from semester to semester anyway. No, it’s what I bring with me into those spaces, the claim I’ve staked out with my years of education and hard work, the expertise I’ve demonstrated in my academic work and my publications, and the dues I’ve paid in my previous classrooms. Standing in front of a class full of students, I’m home.

    We all have a territory.

    Everyone has at least one place where they are totally in charge, where by dint of their competence, their familiarity, or their hard work they can assert themselves more strongly than anywhere else. Most of us have more than one. It might be a physical space – the store you work in, your office, your workshop. Or it might be a field of endeavor – a hobby, a business specialty, an academic discipline.

    My territories are my classroom, writing, my own websites, and anthropology. Within the folds of any of those “places”, I’m at home – I can make a mark.

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    That’s not to say these spaces don’t pose any challenges. They do; in fact, it may be by dint of those challenges that we earn our sense of belonging in them. Every class, I have to work out how to present the material at hand, adjusting my approach to suit the attitudes of the students in my class. Students ask difficult questions, and I have to come up with answers – or at least reasonable ways of addressing the questions.

    In writing, too, I am constantly looking for an adequate way to express what I’m thinking, and reviewing the shortcomings of earlier works hoping to improve my future ones. My more journalistic writing is always a challenge, as I usually have no knowledge of a topic beyond what everyone knows, and have to work out how to become an expert in the short time before my deadline.

    Each of my websites presents a range of challenges, from producing enough content to promoting them adequately. Likewise, my academic specialty presents challenges ranging from thinking up interesting new research angles to keeping up with the latest literature.

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    In a sense, then, the territory is not defined by having overcome its challenges but by the challenges themselves, and our willingness to face those challenges, to wrestle them into submission and make them reveal their mysteries, so we can move on to the next challenge better-prepared than we were before.

    Defining your territories.

    Where are you strongest? Where do you feel most comfortable facing whatever challenges are thrown at you? It’s worth thinking about, because staking out these spaces is an important step towards building up our commitment to do battle.

    Just as important, though: where don’t you feel strong? Where do you feel out of sorts, fraudulent, constantly on the verge of being exposed for the wretch you secretly know you are? I’ve got news for you – feeling that way doesn’t mean you’re out of place, and it doesn’t mean you really are a fraud. What it means is that you’ve staked out the boundaries of your territory but you haven’t made it your own, you haven’t thrown yourself into the fray with everything you’ve got.

    What’s keeping you from truly owning your territory? What barriers stand between you and the throne? Answer these questions and you’ll be well on your way to taking your rightful place at the heart of your territory – or in front of the class.

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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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