Blog Post

Thinking on Leave

I am amazed at how differently I am able to think while I'm on leave. It is not just time off. It is accepting the responsibility of thisprecious year and taking it as a practice. That is my insight. A leaveis a practice.


Since that may be counterintuitive (that's the point, actually) I will try to be clear. Because my project has shifted to a deep theory of how we learn, with that "we" as multiple as I can make it (infants, the elderly, kids on line, those who survive trauma, artists, those with disabilities, exceptional children, children with neurological or developmental conditions, animals, mystics, athletes, and on), I am developing a theory of un-knowing. That is, infants are making neural pathways but also severing them through the process of neural selectivity that is postnatal (and sometimes prenatal) , an intimate learning of one's culture even as one learns to sort the sensory flood of the world (sensations, affections, all of it at once), even as one is learning to sort noise into language. The infant is gathering the multifarious data of the world into categories or what philosopher Liz Grosz calls "concepts" and that includes coming to recognize (incredibly early) which things one's culture considers to be "foreign"--unusual smells, tastes, sounds.

Sociologists Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin insist cultural values/prejudices are also transmitted in this early prelinguistic stage, including ideas of race and racism ("the first R," they call it). Part of learning is reinforcing those concepts over and over. Another part of learning is the practice of breaking them down and unlearning what one didn't even know one had learned, those things that one learns so early and intimately that they seem "natural." It's not easy to unlearn those. Defamiliarization. What my friend Alice Kaplan calls, in a great class she teaches, "the experience of being foreign" (however one defines it). To me, that also means understanding one's own condition as foreign. That's the meditative part, the going inward in order to see what one normally does not see of one's own thoughts.

Oh, the leave. Here's what I do. I read about a phenomenon in the scientific literature, lots of books and articles, lots of noodling around on line (my last catfish noodling posting gave that concept new resonance for me). And, yes, sometimes in all that noodling, I do pull out a lunker idea. That was a digression. What I most like to do is read on, say, Asperger's, looking at one set of theories. Since scientists are excellent at letting us know who they borrow from and, even more, who they don't, I then read the "don't," the theorist with the opposite idea, perspective, theory, interpretation, point of view. In this case, after reading neurological literature, I turned to genetics and then to psychology. Because Asperger's has only been recognized as a distinct condition in the DSMMD a brief while, there isn't the range of contradictory diagnoses and analyses that there is for other conditions (such as autism--in the 1950s-1970s autism was considered to be a psychological condition produced by "refrigerator mothers"). Even with Asperger's, there is still sufficient debate to have a real dialectic.


After feeling confident that I understand a lot about the topic at hand as well as the range of opinions about it, I then like to read memoirs or "as told to" accounts by a person who has been diagnosed as having the syndrome. I just finished "Look Me in the Eye" by John Elder Robinson, who wasn't diagnosed with Asperger's until well into mature adulthood. Often the memoir by a non-scientist fills in exactly the gaps between the competing theorizations of the disease, plus a host of insights into its richness and micro-varieties. Most interesting, there are always positives in the memoirs, not just negatives: what Asperger's allows one to do (such as, in Robinson's case, hear a sound and then think about it and conceive of what technology he needs to develop in order to amplify some aspect or quality in that specific sound: he created KISS's fire-breathing guitars!) Very few scientific studies zero in on the perceptual advantages of the "disorder."


Once I have read all of these different things, the next stage is what I think of as the "practice." I spend a full day or two just thinking about what I've read. I take walks. I sit in a very Japanesy room in my house. I don't read a thing. I don't write a thing. I think. Sometimes I listen to music. Sometimes I look at an art book. Mostly I sit quietly. It feels very nineteenth century, this taking the time to contemplate what one has learned. Outside of a leave (I know I keep saying it but will again--it is the first I've had since 1994), I don't know when one would have time to think, to be still. I am not only learning a very complex new topic but I am trying in some ways to mimic my theory of unlearning by, in this case, doing the opposite of what I normally do: which is run so fast, doing a hundred things at once, that I can turn out the writing by the deadline but rarely have the time to actually unlearn, to unthink my thoughts. And the most important part of the leave.


Rather than thinking about the clock ticking, wasting time (my usual life), I like to say, at the end of every day. "I had a great leave today," and then Ken laughs and says, "And you have another one tomorrow!" It's a funny ritual that reminds of the fullness and preciousness of every day. This is important because it is so easy to waste a leave by obsessing about wasting a leave. I see it all the time. I'm sure I was frantic during my other leave, too. In fact, I know that I was: The franticness of leave, the insane quest for the perfect leave and the measuring down (ah, I only have three months left; ah, I ruined my leave by writing letters of recommendation; ah, I ruined my leave by traveling too much; ah, I ruined my leave by having too many projects--as if there is some Platonic Perfect Leave against which one's own leave is always failing). Sound familiar? I know I did a lot of that last time. It's probably because most leaves are less like "leaving" than fully entering and embodying the insane, chronic overwork of academe (a subject that non-academics do not understand). It's like ruining a vacation by worrying about the work you have to do when you get home. For some reason (and I sure wish I knew why because, if I did, I'd bottle it for when I need it later on), this time I've been able to break the old patterns. The form and content of my leave come together here since the big thing I am trying to learn about learning is how to unlearn our worst patterns. Including work patterns. I have no idea why it happens to be working today ("I had a great leave today") and I'm not at all sure it will work tomorrow, but today is a lucky day.

When I tell people I'm trying out something radical on this leave, they immediately go to the various "extremes" we all see on television, extreme sports, extreme homes, extreme vacations. Maybe I'm spending the year in Tibet. Or backpacking across Africa. Or building a dugout canoe and transnavigating the globe. All those would be fun and exciting and I hope to do (some of) them someday. But they seem, somehow, less different from my everyday life than the year I'm having. i've thought about why this is so and I think it is because, being away, having something else consuming, can over-ride the inevitable pressures that work, constantly, to distract one on leave. Life doesn't go away. One's profession doesn't go away. Even the seventy recommendations one writes every year don't go away. It's all there, the joys and the annoyances and the tragedies and the responsibilities and obligations. And the goal, in this profession of peer review, to always measure up to one's imagined peers. One can be consumed by that. How not to be is the practice, the part that requires unlearning. Some days it works, somedays, not so much. A leave is about unconsuming events. I'm fighting for it.

I'm going to end with a quote sent to me this morning by Mechelle de Craene (our newest HASTAC leader, whose HASTAC on Ning blogs feed directly into the HASTAC homepage now). This is a quote from Papert about exceptional kids and how they learn: "Stated in the language of the skeptical Schooler, my driving question was whether "exceptional children" learned differently because they were exceptional or whether, as I suspected, they became exceptional because circumstances allowed them to learn differently" (Papert, 1993). Another tie-in to my leave/learning practice. This year, this day (more accurately) circumstances are allowing me to learn differently. A leave, yes, is an exceptional practice.


Happy thanksgiving, everyone. I don't plan to post again until after the holidays. May yours be safe and fun and full, in all senses of the word.


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