Lectures, Teams, and the Pursuit of Truth

One of these days, soon, I’ll post something about teaching. Since I’m not teaching this year, I have had a chance to pull together some thoughts about it.

In the meantime, here are a few comments I posted elsewhere. First, I discovered, to my great surprise, that Andrew Gelman seeks to “change everything at once” about statistics instruction—that is, make the instruction student-centered (with as little lecturing as possible), have interactive software that tests and matches students’ levels, measure students’ progress, and redesign the syllabus. While each of these ideas has merit and a proper place, the “change everything” approach seems unnecessary. Why not look for a good combination of old and new? Why abandon the lecture (and Gelman’s wonderful lectures in particular)?

But I listened to the keynote address (that the blog post announced) and heard a much subtler story. Instead of trumpeting the “change everything” mantra into our poor buzzword-ringing heads, Gelman asked questions and examined complexities and difficulties. Only in the area of syllabus did he seem sure of an approach. In the other areas, he was uncertain but looking for answers. I found the uncertainty refreshing but kept on wondering, “why assume that you need to change everything? Isn’t there something worth keeping right here, in this very keynote address about uncertainties?”

Actually, the comment I posted says less than what I have said here, so I won’t repeat it. I have made similar points elsewhere (about the value of lectures, for instance).

Next, I responded to Drake Baer’s piece (in New York Magazine’s Science of Us section), “Feeling Like You’re on a Team at Work Is So Deeply Good for You.” Apparently a research team (ironic, eh?) lead by Niklas Steffens at University of Queensland found that, in Baer’s words, “the more you connect with the group you work with—regardless of the industry you’re in—the better off you’ll be.”

In my comment, I pointed out that such associations do not have to take the form of a team—that there are other structures and collegial relations. The differences do matter; they affect the relation of the individual to the group. Not everything is a team. Again, no need to repeat. I haven’t yet read the meta-study, but I intend to do so.

Finally, I responded to Jesse Singal’s superb analysis of psychology’s “methodological terrorism” debate. Singal points to an underlying conflict between Susan Fiske’s wish to protect certain individuals and others’ call for frank, unbureaucratic discussion and criticism. To pursue truth, one must at times disregard etiquette. (Tal Yarkoni, whom Singal quotes, puts it vividly.) There’s much more to Singal’s article; it’s one of the most enlightening new pieces I have read online all year. (In this case, by “year” I  mean 2016, not the past twelve days since Rosh Hashanah.)

That’s all for now. Next up: a piece on teaching (probably in a week or so). If my TEDx talk gets uploaded in the meantime (it should be up any day now), I’ll post a link to it.

The Ubiquitous Team

Humans enjoy (and sometimes suffer from) a richness of relations. We first form bonds with family members, then start to make friends of different kinds. As we get older, we join groups, collaborate with others, and participate in many kinds of associations. Throughout all of this, solitude allows us to make sense of our relationships, come back to ourselves, and regather our strength and thoughts. Often relations change or break; often they renew themselves in different forms.

Today the concept of the “team” has overtaken all other associations. Just about every group gets called a “team”; and relations outside of teams get short shrift. It is even common to address people as “team.” The problem is not with teams or teamwork but with their ubiquity: the insistence that everyone be part of a team and the suggestion that any resistance at all to the team is a show of personal selfishness or weakness.

The team is just one form of association. Its role is to work toward a concrete goal in a tightly coordinated manner. For instance, if you are an athletic team, your goal is to score more points than the opposing team. You work together toward that end. No single athlete’s brilliance matters unless it contributes to that goal. Likewise, if you are working with others on fundraising (for instance) and have a specific target to achieve, then those contributing to the achievement of the goal are acting as team members.

But there are many forms of collaboration and association that are not quite team-like. A musical ensemble, for instance, is not typically called a “team” (though this is changing as the “team” denomination spreads over onto everything). Although musicians work tightly together, there is a soul to what they do, a kind of solitude to each contribution. Also, the goal is somewhat concrete but not only concrete. A concert goes beyond attaining a goal.

In addition, many associations benefit from the differences and divergences of the members. The work may not be tightly coordinated at all. For instance, in a college English department, the faculty may have different areas of specialty and different approaches to literature. Insofar as they can engage in dialogue, insofar as they have enough common ground, and insofar as the students benefit from their differences, it is good for their efforts not to be too strictly defined and pieced together. As the economist John Jewkes noted in 1958, overemphasis on teamwork can diminish not only individuals, but dialogue between them.

Beyond that, the richest personal and professional associations are often not group relationships, but one-on-one collaborations, friendships, and partnerships. Rarely can a group attain the understanding, rapport, and sympathy that exists between two. When the team is treated as the pinnacle of relations, even personal conversation, even original ideas get subordinated to the team. There is subtle pressure to include others in conversation at all times, to avoid saying things that stand out, to give others credit for one’s own work, and to reserve one’s highest praises for the team.

Teams and teamwork are not bad in themselves; they have an important place in daily life. Most of us have situations where we need to work tightly with others and where our own thoughts and wishes must recede for a while. Yet there is also work that we do better alone or with select others–and work that isn’t quite teamwork. Also, we must not always be working; there must be room and time for thought, exploration, rest, and laughter.

Learning to serve a larger endeavor is also valuable–but there are times not to do so, and many ways of doing so. It is at least as important to diverge from the group–when such divergence is genuine–and to question group assumptions. This may interfere with “teamwork” in the sort run but may actually enrich the work and the relations. As far as I know, we only get one life on earth. It would be a shame to waste it by flattening oneself.

So, without disparaging the team in itself, without dismissing its specific value, I resist its ubiquity with all my heart and soul. There are many more ways to be with oneself and others.

A Dream of Uncertainty

Yesterday I sat for a while on a bench in Riverside Park, listening to the water and the wind (and traffic). I had a chance to sort through the many events and conversations of the week. It has been an exhilarating and exhausting time: my students’ philosophy journal received a great review, a paperback edition of my book just came out, and my classes have been lively. More exciting events lie ahead—and, as usual, I have piles of homework to grade and a backlog of errands and duties.

In the midst of this, I have a slight ache, which goes back to the subject of my book. It has been a long time since I heard someone praise—or even acknowledge—singularity and independent thought. (The one recent exception was Susannah Heschel, who gave a wonderful lecture yesterday about her father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his relationship with Rabbi Marshall Meyer [1930-1993]). One thing she said that struck me is that we have a responsibility to let ourselves be uncertain.

In general, what I hear all around me is “Go Team.” People are praised insofar as they serve the team; teams are praised insofar as they are teams. (G. K. Chesterton would have had a field day with this phenomenon.) The word “community” likewise comes in hardened dogmatic form (as David Bromwich notes in his 1992 book Politics by Other Means). As it is commonly invoked, the “community” doesn’t make allowances for those who don’t fit its strictures or who make a regular practice of walking away.

I am not deploring the concepts of team and community; my complaint is that they have been taken too far. There is too little room for the counterpart, which could be called solitude. Solitude and company (or community, or collaboration, or friendship) exist in complex relation. Solitude, like community, can be understood crassly. It is not just time alone, or space apart. It is part of the mind, soul, and sinews. (Yes, there’s solitude even in dusting the furniture—the private glimpse of the shining wood and the specks flying up in the air.)

My students recently read part of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. There’s a passage (in the final chapter) where the sight of a man and woman coming together on the street and entering a taxicab sets off a stream of thoughts about how our creative work requires the coming together of the male and female in our minds. In this very passage, there’s solitude (the stream of thought) and company (the man and woman entering the taxicab). Who could separate them? What would the stream of thought be without the encounter, or vice versa?

My most important projects have had a combination of solitude and collaboration. The philosophy journal could not have existed without the individuals who worked on it. Yes, we had to bring the many efforts together, but without the singularity of the contributions, there wouldn’t have been much to bring. The wit, thoughtfulness, and beauty did not come from a team. At the same time, we spent much time meeting and deliberating over matters of many sizes.

My book, which was largely a solitary effort, involved some collaboration as well. I sent individual chapters to scholars and others who had special knowledge of the subject. Whenever I quoted texts, I did so with care—taking the larger context of the work into account, tracking down first editions for the bibliography, and so on. Beyond that, many of the ideas in the book were inspired by people who had influenced me along the way: teachers, students, mentors, friends, and family members.

All of this is obvious yet difficult to describe. Solitude is not completely solitude, nor company completely company. The problem I see around me is a sealing of terminology. People speak of “the team” as though that’s all that existed and mattered. There’s little recognition that it’s only a part. The same can be said for invocations of community; the community would be a great thing, were it allowed to be a little less than great.

This brings me to the title of the post: “A Dream of Uncertainty.” I long for a language that questions itself, that recognizes its own indefinite edges. I long for a community that does not pretend to be everything, to include everyone, or to be more glorious than it is. Uncertainty allows for an opening—a way of existing with things that go beyond us, that slip away from us, that hum a song beyond our understanding.

The Solitude of Good Collaboration

Not long ago, I attended a meeting where a teacher presented her own definition and explanation of “analysis.” She suggested that other teachers do the same: think about analysis on their own, put their best definitions and explanations together, and then bring these ideas to the next meeting. As I listened, I understood what she was after. She realized that the discussion would be more productive if the teachers first thought alone about the matter. In other words, she saw that collaboration requires an element of solitude—an idea that seems obvious but is often forgotten.

We hear, over and over, about the need for cooperative learning and collaborative planning. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin put forth the familiar argument that teachers want to collaborate, bless their souls, but end up spending most of their non-instructional time alone, in their isolated rooms. It is time, they say, to create more opportunities and resources for collaboration. But why do Mirel and Goldin pit solitary work against collaboration? Take away the former, or reduce the time for it, and the latter will lose meaning. Meetings will gravitate toward the lowest common denominator—that which everyone can readily understand and accept.

In many schools, teachers are required to spend time in teams every day, but there is no protection of solitary time. Most of the day is taken up with instruction, meetings, and various other tasks and duties. Even when alone in the room, the teacher is usually gathering materials and correcting student work. One of the most important parts of teaching—mulling over the subject itself—gets pushed out to the edges of the day.

Yet is this very mulling, this solitary relationship with subject matter, that preserves the integrity of teaching. When we bring our own work and thought to the group, the group does not hold us back; it does not reduce what we have to say, since we have already worked it out in our minds. “Conversation will not corrupt us,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “if we come to the assembly in our own garb and speech, and with the energy of health to select what is ours and reject what is not.” To have “our own garb and speech,” we must know what it is; to have the “energy of health” for selection, we must be able to restore and strengthen ourselves alone.

When teachers have insufficient time for thinking alone, they are more susceptible to group errors and group jargon. Suppose teachers were trying to come up with a definition of “analysis.” If they did this as a group, without thinking alone first, they would end up with a collection of scattered thoughts, which they would then try to cobble together. They might arrive at something like, “Analysis is a higher-order critical investigation in which a thesis is substantiated with evidence and clear connections are made between the evidence and the thesis.” That is difficult to detangle, as many group statements are. But if they took the question into their minds, played with it, figured something out, and then brought their thoughts to the table, they could arrive at a good working definition. (Note: dictionaries offer multiple definitions of “analysis”—so even after looking it up, one must think it over.)

One teacher might say, for instance, that analysis is the act of breaking something into its elements. Another might say that it is the act of inferring generalities from specific details. Still another might say that it is both: that it involves relating details to the whole and vice versa. Still another might define it as the examination of a phenomenon’s structure. As they considered the ideas that had been presented, they might see truth in all of them. Analysis, they might conclude, is the systematic explication of a relationship—for instance, between a part and a whole of a literary text or between a historical event and its possible causes. Having arrived at a plausible general definition, the teachers might supplement it with specific definitions to suit the situation at hand. This is not likely to happen without solitary thought.

By bringing solitary thought into their collaboration, teachers not only enhance their own work but set an example for students. Students, too, will learn more from each other if they know how to think and work alone. Let us suppose that, in a music class, students are considering how the sonata form plays out in the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 (“Pathétique”). To do this well, they are best off listening to it alone, without distractions, several times. The form (introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, coda) is not difficult to discern. When alone, they will hear its particularities: the key changes, the textures, the transitions from one theme into another, and the subtle, less tangible changes of color and mood. Then, in class, they can point out what they found; one student may have noticed something that others did not. The teacher will be able to alert them to still more subtleties and patterns, which they will be able to appreciate. It is not only time with the material that they need; they need private, nonsocial time with it, time without peers nearby to condition what they think and say.

We must halt the collaboration screech-wagon and pursue greater thougthfulness instead. The visible signs of collaboration are not the only ones; taken too far, they impede good work. There is something vast in a bit of quiet: a chance to absorb, practice, and tinker. At its best, it takes us past our narrower selves, allowing us to see our mistakes and misconceptions. There is no need to shove it aside, no need to disparage the thing that allows us to bring something to others.