The Fly on the Wall—Why We Can’t Avoid the Labour of Reading and Writing

The Fly on the Wall—Why We Can’t Avoid the Labour of Reading and Writing

In Latin the word vulgaris refers to something common, but we’re not at AU because we’re average, right?  We’re here to transcend our ordinary lives by bettering ourselves through education.  With that in mind we can all recall absorbing common ideologies about personal learning styles.  It’s a song as old as rhyme: each of us possesses an ideal mode of acquiring knowledge that jives with our inner rhythms like a favourite cell phone app or a catchy musical genre.  It’s no coincidence that any typology of learning styles naturally blurs boundaries between taste and tendency.

Visual, spatial, and literary are three typical learning styles we’ve likely all heard of.  To place ourselves on that spectrum we might, when choosing our courses at AU, first note our successes and failures of the past.  If math was never our forte, or in my case if the spatial directions of origami have struck fear in my heart since the first grade, then some forms of learning (however we choose to categorize them) don’t bode well for our flourishing as much as do others.  It takes a certain type of honesty with ourself to admit our shortcomings while outlining areas where we can legitimately improve our skills.

Yet there’s no getting around the need to buckle in and do the course readings and write our course assignments; there’s no shortcut to attention span and motivation.  And when it comes to our essential drive to succeed, there really may only be two styles: motivated and lazy.  Like the skill of attention span more generally, it takes work to, well, accomplish our coursework.

Sylvester Stallone Meets The Offspring

Think about how it feels to face a monolith of reading; there’s no Stallone solution to this Cliffhanger, so the only way forward is to get started.  If we hope to get where we’re going, eg to translate eighty pages of reading into a smooth explanation for an essay, we have to first read the material.  And we have to really want it.  Tests of our reading and comprehension skills mean just what they say; we first must read if we are then to comprehend.  In back of that is the reality that some knowledge just can’t be explained outside of a willingness to learn.  As the 90s band the Offspring sang:

“I can draw a little picture

Or even use my hands

I try to explain but you just don’t understand”

Ostensibly, the song is about the scourge of drug abuse, but for us it applies best to the twin academic afflictions of indolence and procrastination.

Understanding, then, is clearly about more than adopting a proper mode of presentation; we have to be willing participants and interpreters in the action at hand.

Steven Strogatz claims that to understand something we have to see its dynamism, and, in some cases, this can be visual.  “I can see patterns much more readily in colored dots running, moving on the screen, than I can in looking at 500 simultaneous time series.  I don’t see stuff very well like that.  Because it’s not what it really looks like…What I’m studying is something dynamic.  So the representation should be dynamic”.  Fair enough; there’s a visual learner for you.

At AU, however, we aren’t likely to pass any courses without reading the words in our textbooks.  Words may seem a blur akin to a cloud of crows or blackflies but if we don’t zoom in and read each of them we aren’t going to absorb their meaning.  We have to know ourselves and our abilities while also, perhaps, being aware of what the nature of learning at any age entails.

Writing and Meaning, As Natural As Blazing a Trail

Naturally, reading and writing stem from our most basic human instincts.  Jacques Derrida stated that human interactions with nature embody a form of writing, a method of inscribing meaning onto our planetary landscape.  “The silva (forest) is savage, the via rupta (path cut through) is written…it is difficult to imagine that access to the possibility of road-maps is not at the same time access to writing.” (Derrida, cvii).  To find our best fit at AU we have to research syllabi by reading them, and this process of discovery trails all the way back to our earliest childhood.  The emergence of our conscious self, along with knowledge of the names of adult caregivers such as Mama and Dada, is like cutting a machete path of consciousness through the undergrowth of raw sensory data.  To this day we read a social situation based upon a series of rules we’ve acquired; these function more like a text than an image in terms of their prescriptive clarity.

In particular, knowing someone’s role in a given situation requires the deployment of proper names.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak suggests that human interactions would founder without names and identities as a permanent inscription on our consciousness of ourselves and others; “the most interesting reason given for the impossibility of a community without writing is that the bestowing of the proper name, something no society can avoid, is itself inhabited by the structure of writing” (Spivak, cvii).  To know our Dad and Mom, or any other person including ourselves, is to know them as their proper name identifies them in a given circumstance (so for youngsters this implies a familial role hierarchy).  Proper names are written into us and thus must be read mentally.  As students, we have to decide who we are being at AU and that means donning our most studious student identities.  This leads us to contend with the basic need to study and read if success is to be achieved.  After all, learning without focus is pretty much impossible.

Where Style Meets Substance: Reading and Remembering as Unavoidable Admission Costs

A failure of learning styles as an ideology is that it provides a cognitive loophole for those who would prefer not to take the time to read and study, and re-read and re-study, difficult textbook material.  Consider the following report by James Somers from the reputable Atlantic magazine: it’s splashy headline claims that the scientific paper is obsolete thanks to computer models.  The author states that science has become too complex for our simple minds and, without mentioning the myriad of cell phone distractions that provide convenient pretexts for newt-sized attention spans to wander astray, concludes that: “the more sophisticated science becomes, the harder it is to communicate results”.  Maybe we just have lost our will to overcome distractions.

Somers notes that scientific journal articles utterly “depend on chains of computer programs that generate data, and clean up data, and plot data, and run statistical models on data.  These programs tend to be both so sloppily written and so central to the results that it’s contributed to a replication crisis, or put another way, a failure of the paper to perform its most basic task: to report what you’ve actually discovered clearly enough that someone else can discover it for themselves.

He nevertheless concludes that better computer programs with visual aids are the solution and yet, ironically or paradoxically depending on how you look at it, not without first noting that computer programs have thus far been problematic.

Can the problem be the solution? Perhaps the solution was there in the journal articles in the first place; in science as in the broader world of education, reading remains fundamental.  And as anyone who reads scientific news online at sites such as Science Daily knows, there are plenty of summary depictions of breakthroughs and disappointments that don’t resort to images and visuals.  A few hundred words suffice.  Somers nevertheless describes how a programmer’s “redesign interleaved the explanatory text with little interactive diagrams that illustrated each step”.  This may appeal to those who identify as visual learners, but we can’t expect our degrees to be delivered without us engaging in the hard, time-swallowing slog of reading and comprehending masses of words.

That’s not all, folks.  If you’re like me and you’ve waded through your share of scientific journal articles you know that the abstract at the very beginning nicely summarizes what is going on in terms of research findings.  Yet again Somers’ article fails to mention the abstract as words that work.  Instead, he suggests that, just as comic books are now known as graphic novels, a new form of kinder, simpler, science may rise to hegemony by, not to mince words, pretty pictures.  In fact, scientific journal articles already have those and they’re known as graphs.  Yet, Somers seems to assume that these graphic depictions of data are too complex or too boring for readers who don’t wish to actually read the material.

The Mantra of Learning as Iteration: Read, Comprehend, and Repeat

Communication, verbal or written, is about words.  And in our culture that requires the magical elixir that the Phoenicians invented and spread like an infectious smile all over the Ancient Mediterranean: movable script by means of an alphabet.  There’s a reason we start our process of literacy by repeating our ABC’s.  When we consider the place that language has at the core of our being as we emerge into toddler-hood, the symbolic stew of letters and words appears as both more intimate and more enjoyable.  Language is the stuff of us!  Imagine if we’d never learned to speak or read; we’d literally not be here now in any understandable way.  Our consciousness would remain unthinkable and unknowable in its present form.  So, instead of an upstream struggle, the reading and writing of our coursework can be seen as an emergence into a better version of our core literal (and literary!) self.  And that’s some knowledge worth writing home about.

Derrida, J.  (1967).  Of Grammatology.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
Spivak, G.  (2016).  ‘Translator’s Preface’, Derrida, J (1967).  Of Grammatology.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.