The Movement Around the Edges

eurovelo 11 photo 2Was it a great experience, this week in Hungary and Slovakia after the rich two weeks in Istanbul? Of course, but it was more than experience. Experiences can get in the way. Martin Buber places experience in the I-It realm; to experience, in his view, is to extract knowledge and impressions, and thus to possess and degrade. Even “inner” and “secret” experiences belong to this domain:*

I experience something. If we add “inner” to “outer” experiences, nothing in the situation is changed. We are merely following the uneternal division that springs from the lust of the human race to whittle away the secret of death. Inner things or outer things, what are they but things and things!

I experience something. If we add “secret” to “open” experiences, nothing in the situation is changed. How self-confident is that wisdom which perceives a closed compartment in things, reserved for the initiate and manipulated only with the key. O, secrecy without a secret! O accumulation of information! It, always It!

sunsetHow, then, do you go beyond “experience” into an actual encounter with a place? I thought of putting away the camera (phone) but knew I would regret coming back without pictures. So I tried to stay aware of the movement around the edges, the impossibility of capturing a place or saying anything definitive about it.

durkovIn Budapest I attended two chamber concerts, a jazz concert (by the band Nigun), and an opera (The Tenor by Ernő Dohnányi); visited the Dohány Street Synagogue; and walked all over the place, In Slovakia I went on a private walking tour in Košice and took a bus on my own to Ďurkov (where my great-grandfather Max Fischer lived before coming to the U.S. with his parents and seven siblings). The picture to the right is of Ďurkov, with a stork presiding over it all. In addition, I spent two days biking in northern Hungary. All this in one week; the days spill out of the frame.

Language (or rather, the language barrier) kept me firmly lodged in the ineffable, because I couldn’t say much in Hungarian. One day I was walking through a playground in Budapest. Two little girls (around age six or seven) ran up to me and asked me for something in Hungarian. I had no idea what they wanted and replied that I spoke English. Their eyes lit up. “Yes?” one of them said. They repeated their words more slowly, and one girl touched her knee. I asked (in English) whether they needed a band-aid. “Yes,” the girl replied. I said I didn’t have any. “No,” the other girl said. They started alternating–randomly, it seemed–between “Yes” and “No.” Then they ran away giggling; one of them called out “Have a nice day!”

Nigun bandThere was also the language of hands. In Budapest, I noticed that audiences were much less exuberant with their applause than in the U.S. They clapped but did not cheer. But this initial reserve, I soon realized, allowed for a crescendo. Audiences would clap quietly at first, then build into a rhythm (a sign of enthusiasm), then possibly erupt into a cheer or two. If the audience kept clapping (as it did at the Nigun concert, pictured here), then an encore was in order. In any case, you could sense the gradations of excitement. Yet applause is just one expression of enthusiasm or appreciation; attention is another. The audiences seemed extraordinarily attentive, but how do I know that, really? What do I know about another person’s mind?

swingsetNot only the outside world, but a traveler’s thoughts and moods can become an “experience” (or not). If I think, “I felt melancholy when looking at the swing set,” I deceive myself, because the melancholy, like the swing set, came with so much more. I thought about the engineering; whether the asymmetry was intentional here, because there is only one swing. I thought about what it would be like to swing in this swing; I remembered swings of childhood, the Robert Louis Stevenson poem, and the rope swing in Charlotte’s Web. I imagined the rhythmic creaking sound and the push of feet against grass.

liberty bridgeIn the contrasts between city and country, I sensed all kinds of things below and beyond the appearances. Budapest seemed dormant at first, after the throbbing bustle of Istanbul, but by the end I was walking in liveliness. The towns seemed enclosed, as towns anywhere can be, but everywhere there were histories and stories. With more time and language, I could have learned some of them.

But with all its limitations, the traveling opened up something extraordinary. Before my trip, many people worried that I was putting myself in danger. Yet while I took precautions and stayed alert, I felt distinctly safe. Even traveling alone, a woman, in countries where I did not speak the language (or, except in Slovakia, any language in the same family), I could move confidently on foot, on bike, or by train.

Except for two walking tours, I traveled independently; as I went along, I saw more and more to see. By the end, my toes had barely inched into new and ancient places, but that in itself was something: to see the inches (or centimeters) and the dim shapes beyond.

haftarah scroll from prossnitz

*Quote from Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Scribner, 1986), 21.

The last photo here, taken at the Jewish Museum in Budapest, is of a 1732 Haftarah scroll from Prossnitz, Moravia (now Prostějov, Czech Republic). It is opened to the Haftarah reading for Shabbat Hazon (Isaiah 1:1-27), which we studied in cantillation class this spring for its alternation between Haftarah and Eicha trope. In the left column, seventeen lines down, you can see the great words “Limdu heiteiv” (roughly “learn to do good”).

I made a few revisions and one correction to this piece after posting it.

What Would Become of Walter Mitty and Fern?

There’s a new medical term for excessive daydreaming: Sluggish Cognitive Tempo. This is not a joke; research into this possible condition has been in progress for thirty years or so. Although it has yet to be recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it has conferences and articles in its name.Some supporters of the new diagnosis wax exuberant over the supposed clarity it brings to the ADHD question (since it overlaps with what has been known as ADHD).

Before discussing the problems with such a diagnosis, I will give it its due. “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo” (SCT) is the term for a cluster of symptoms: daydreaming, mental fog, confusion, frequent staring, and others. Researchers have been looking into the possibility that this cluster exists apart from ADHD. If this were so, and if treatment were found for the condition, many children and adults could be spared the pain and risks of misdiagnosis–and might have access to effective treatment. For those whose condition prevents them from functioning from day to day, this could be a godsend (or a science-send).

So, why fret over this? I worry for Walter Mitty, the protagonist of James Thurber’s story and the film based on it (the one starring Danny Kaye; I was unable to bring myself to see the more recent one). Walter Mitty would have been diagnosed with SCT, and then we would not have had him. There would be no “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.” Mitty would be “on task.”

In fact, many a wandering mind would be herded back onto the task at hand. But maybe some of those wanderings are more interesting than the task. Maybe we attach too much value to task performance. (I bring this up–in relation to solitude, not SCT–on BBC World Service’s program The Forum.)

I have had students who had difficulty staying on task because they were thinking about the subject in an interesting way–as well as students who seemed “off-task” because they were actually concentrating hard (and not taking notes as the others were). I myself tended not to take notes in school; I preferred to listen and think. Fortunately my teachers let me be; today, I would be considered off-task.

The daydreamer may actually be highly attentive–absorbed in the matter at hand and unwilling or unable to move on to the next thing. The one who stares into space may be listening closely to something.

Granted, some people’s daydreaming and other SCT-associated symptoms prevent them from doing what they themselves want to do. But when it comes to diagnosing children, it is adults who decide whether there’s a problem. They might not see the rewards of daydreaming; they might only see the low grade on the homework assignment. “Why didn’t you start each paragraph with a topic sentence? Why do you have only one supporting detail here instead of two?” Wandering minds such as Mitty, Tristram Shandy, and many an actual person would get faulted, diagnosed, and fixed. The world would fill up with dreary essays that never departed from the rubric.

In Charlotte’s Web, Fern’s mother pays a visit to the family doctor, Dr. Dorian, in order to seek his advice about Fern, who, in her view, spends far too much time alone with the animals, just sitting and listening to them. Dr. Dorian leans back, closes his eyes, and says, “How enchanting!”

I do not mean to romanticize a serious condition–but I suspect that if SCT had been a diagnosis in Fern’s day, and if Dr. Dorian had not been so wise, Fern might well have ended up on medication.

The Biometric Bracelet and the End of Daydreaming

Children won’t be able to get away with daydreaming much longer. If their mind wanders “off task,” a sensor will catch them.

News broke recently that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $1.4 million in grants to researchers who will experiment with “biometric” bracelets in middle schools around the country. (These bracelets send a small electrical current across the skin and then measure the electrical changes as the wearer responds to stimuli.)  The researchers intend to use them to measure student “engagement” and to determine which parts of a lesson (or reading or other activity) show higher engagement levels than others. Supposedly, through analyzing engagement levels in this manner, the researchers can deliver recommendations for raising engagement overall. The Reuters article explains:

Teachers could, for instance, use the bracelets to monitor student response to a video or a reading, then use that data to spark a lively discussion by zeroing in on the most engaging points, said Rosalind Picard, a computer scientist at MIT and a co-founder of Affectiva, which makes the sensors.

Such use of sensors in educational experiments is by no means new. Researchers at MIT, Arizona State University, and UMass Amherst have been developing “affect-aware tutors”—cartoon characters that respond to the students’ moods. Various sensors (including a mental state camera, posture analysis seat sensor, pressure mouse sensor, and skin conductance bracelet) detect the user’s state of mind; the cartoon character then responds. If a student shows frustration with a math problem, for instance, a cartoon might pop up with an expression of concern and say, “Gee, that was difficult. Would you like to try something easier?” (I discuss this in the eighth chapter of my book.)

Now, something is deeply wrong with all of this—in fact, there’s so much wrong with it that it’s difficult to get it all into a short space. But I’ll give it a try. Many more responses can be found on Diane Ravitch’s blog (for instance, here and here).

First of all, these bracelet sensors are invasive. Students (and people in general) have a right to their own thoughts and thought patterns. Yes, a teacher may demand attention in the classroom, but what goes on inside a student’s head remains his or her own business. Yes, sometimes doctors use sensors to test us, but they do this with our consent, for medical reasons. Privacy is a complex subject; what belongs to each of us alone, and what belongs to society? The answer cannot be determined through science; it is an ethical and philosophical matter. We must use our best judgment and conscience when drawing the line.

Second, engagement in itself is not necessarily a good in the classroom; higher levels do not necessarily mean more learning. Engagement comes in many forms and has complex rhythms. There is fleeting engagement—entertainment—that fades as soon as object moves away. There are behaviors that do not look like engagement but actually are (a student may look off to the side in order to think about something the teacher just said). A student working at home on a difficult problem will have ups and downs of engagement—puzzling over the problem, trying this approach, ending up in a rut, shaking the head, getting up and walking around, sitting down again and trying another approach, and finally figuring it out. All in all, engagement is secondary to what’s actually going on (which we must interpret with full mind).

Boosting engagement could even degrade instruction. Rosalind Picard (mentioned in the quote above) imagines teachers using the bracelets to determine the most “engaging” points of a reading. They can then zero in on these points in class discussion. Have the researchers spoken with teachers and professors of literature? Do they know how literature works? The most engaging points are not necessarily the most important ones. Sometimes subtle details prove essential to the story. Sometimes the ending confuses the reader at first and then suddenly makes sense. When selecting points of a story (or essay or other work) for discussion, one should think about the story itself, not the engagement levels. A “lively” discussion driven by “engagement data” could be supremely shallow.

Finally (for now), these efforts to neasure and boost engagment may rip up the last remnants of daydreaming. Some might say, “so what?” but there’s a lot at stake here. Many of us need to daydream in order to solve problems, try out possibilities, imagine scenarios, puzzle over words, or even just be by ourselves now and then. Much pedagogy discussion assumes that students should always be “on task,” that they should be hard at work toward a specified goal. When I was in school, this wasn’t so; for one thing, there weren’t so many tasks. You came into class to listen to the teacher and take part in discussion. Your mind could drift now and then. Sometimes the teacher would say, “What’s on your mind?” and you could say, “oh, nothing” or else divulge your thoughts.

One of my favorite daydreaming scenes occurs at the end of the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

The children ran out to the road and climbed into the bus. Fern took no notice of the others in the bus. She just sat and stared out of the window, thinking what a blissful world it was and how lucky she was to have entire charge of a pig. By the time the bus reached school, Fern had named her pet, selecting the most beautiful name she could think of.“Its name is Wilbur,” she whispered to herself.

She was still thinking about the pig when the teacher said, “Fern, what is the capital of Pennsylvania?”

“Wilbur,” replied Fern dreamily. The pupils giggled. Fern blushed.

The researchers and their funders may have forgotten the gentle wisdom of this story. We need to defend such wisdom against all things that push it away. Researcher or salesperson, if you come to my classroom with a biometric bracelet, I will invite you to read Charlotte’s Web with me. Or Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life,” which is about “idle busyness”—that is, empty engagement. Or Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” (“Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?”). As we read, neither of us will wear a bracelet or make graphs of our engagement levels. That shrill, simplistic science will stay out of the room.