Tag Archives: minds

Links: Grammar, science: 20 Feb. 2013

1. A post at Smithsonian called “The Ten Most Disturbing Scientific Discoveries” is from a couple years ago but still seems valid. In light of some of my experiences with feeling my creativity is not an intentional and/or consciously controlled, I enjoyed reading how much else that we do is also at least influenced by other non-rational, sub-/unconscious things:

6. Your mind is not your own.

Freud might have been wrong in the details, but one of his main ideas—that a lot of our behaviors and beliefs and emotions are driven by factors we are unaware of—turns out to be correct. If you’re in a happy, optimistic, ambitious mood, check the weather. Sunny days make people happier and more helpful. In a taste test, you’re likely to have a strong preference for the first sample you taste—even if all of the samples are identical. The more often you see a person or an object, the more you’ll like it. Mating decisions are based partly on smell. Our cognitive failings are legion: we take a few anecdotes and make incorrect generalizations, we misinterpret information to support our preconceptions, and we’re easily distracted or swayed by irrelevant details. And what we think of as memories are merely stories we tell ourselves anew each time we recall an event.

2. A post illustrating the wrongness of some grammar proscriptions, that infinitives can be split, that it’s not such a crime to end a sentence with a preposition, and that it’s OK to start a sentence with a conjunction (like “and”). I spend a good portion of many of my teaching days instructing high school sophomores is the basics: not confusing their, there, and they’re; finding subjects and verbs so as to avoid writing sentence fragments; and how to use semicolons between independent clauses (and series that contain sub-series, like this sentence).

A bright student asked me today why we study grammar, and I said, basically, that correct grammar is the way that smart people talk to each other and that if one wants to sound smart, one has to learn to use correct grammar (in at least those situations where one wants to sound smart). In retrospect, I should have said “educated people” instead of “smart people,” since of course there are many smart people who do not have formal education, but otherwise I’d stand by my explanation. My student seemed to enjoy what I said — perhaps it sounds cynical, but I can’t honestly come up with a better justification. David Foster Wallace, in his essay “Authority and American Usage” (a version of which is here), says

“the real truth, of course, is that SWE [Standard Written English] is the dialect of the American elite. That it was invented, codified, and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as ‘Standard’ by same. That it is the shibboleth of the Establishment, and that it is an instrument of political power and class division and racial discrimination and all manner of social inequity” (page 107 of the paperback of Wallace’s book “Consider the Lobster”). Wallace also says, “In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE” (pg. 109).

Wanting my students to have the ability to code-switch to SWE, I hope to teach them the standards, however arbitrary, of standard English. I do not want to argue that students don’t need to be taught these standards — although I suspect that some of my students pick up these standards unintentionally by immersion in language-rich households and/or by the self-directed decoding-processing of great quantities of texts (that is, reading for pleasure).

What often troubles me about teaching grammar in a writing class is that it seems altogether separate from teaching the writing — as if I were teaching fluid dynamics physics to beginning swimmers: it’s something to think about, but doesn’t really accomplish the goal. Writing, like most skills, improves through practice and repetition more than it does by theoretical analysis. The biggest thing I had to let go of as a creative writer was letting go of theories about how my stories should be, and just write.

As a teacher, I’m not sure how to really incorporate the students’ theoretical-grammar knowledge into their actual writing practice. I don’t know where the words I write come from, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never gotten writing done by thinking, “First, I’ll put a noun — no, wait, an adjective, and then a noun, then a verb — maybe an adverb sprinkled in somewhere?” Along these lines, I was in a meeting today where a special education teacher asked my opinion about whether a student was using too few or too many adjectives. I didn’t know how to answer that.

Writing is holistic, and in my case, my writing has gotten better over years and years of doing it, very little of which involved abstractly theorizing. Using language is an immediate experience, not far removed from other “automatic” brain activities as recognizing faces, perhaps. I love about teaching writing that it is holistic, that I’m asking students to create works, rather than just asking students to return some facts or solve some problems, as other disciplines do. But maybe the best any writing teacher can do is provide students formulas and techniques until students can create their own habits, process, mental models, etc.

Link and Nonfic: Insight remains handmade

An interesting essay at Los Angeles Review of Books (of which I learned thanks to The Dish), excerpted here:

Which is why algorithms, exactly like fascism, work perfectly, with a sense of seemingly unstoppable inevitability, right up until the point they don’t. During the Flash Crash of May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones lost nine percent of its value in five minutes. More recently, Knight Capital lost 440 million dollars at a rate of about 10 million dollars a minute due to what it called “a rogue algorithm.” Algorithms cannot, of course, be rogue. But rogue is the term we have invented for algorithms that don’t do what they’re supposed to, which is as much as to say that their creators don’t comprehend what they’re doing. Before that 440 million dollar loss, Knight Capital had used science to identify a functional law of the marketplace. They had engineered an end to the fundamental human condition of risk. They had not, 45 minutes later. As Borges also wrote, “There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless.” This same futility, it should be remembered, haunts mathematical modeling as much as literary contextualization.

Meaning is mushy. Meaning falls apart. Meaning is often ugly, stewed out of weakness and failure. It is as human as the body, full of crevices and prey to diseases. It requires courage and a certain comfort with impurity to live with. Retreat from the smoothness of technology is not an available option, even if it were desirable. The disbanding of the papers has already occurred, a splendid fluttering of the world’s texts to the winds. We will have to gather them all together somehow. But the possibility of a complete, instantly accessible, professionally verified and explicated, free global library is more than just a dream. Through the perfection of our smooth machines, we will soon be able to read anything, anywhere, at any time.

Insight remains handmade.

This essay makes an interesting distinction between literary meaning and raw data. But it also reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about as my students and I have debated philosophically this week the question of whether money is real. We defined “real” as that which is directly sensible by some of the five senses, and so money, which is more often than not these days just the numbers indicated on my bank account and credit card statements, is not sensible and therefore not real.

Of course, argument could be made with our class definition of real, which could be redefined in such a way as to include money. Yet, the fact that the definitions of both money and real can be adjusted seems to me to separate them all the more from the necessity of concrete entities. I don’t doubt the existence of my tea cup — as I tell my students, I don’t doubt it because I think it would hurt if I hit my head repeatedly with it. But money, as an abstraction, wouldn’t hurt my skull at all.

And so there’s a question as to whether abstractions exist, and if how, in what form? Where are they?  How can your ideas be real to me if I can’t see them? How can ideas be real if we can have ideas about unreal things? Yes, you can communicate your ideas, about things real or unreal, to me, or you can try to:  I can interpret your vocalizations or your written symbols as words and then I can interpret those words as meanings, but of course, this process can be problematic. But then, the process often seems to work, too. But these things we communicate — are they real, and if so, in what sense of real?

And now I’m thinking about nonfiction — how in poetry or fiction, I can write anything and throw it out there and it can be merely interesting (or not), but in nonfiction, if I claim a text to be nonfiction, then I’m implying that I’m writing as myself, that the narrator is the author. And in nonfiction, I’m also often writing as if I have an idea to convey — but I may just be speculating. In writing poetry and fiction, I don’t even have to know what the words I’m writing may mean (and in fact, they may not be being used to convey meaning, but to convey sounds or mood).

Right now, this minute, I feel I want to write something, to post something, but I’m also feeling a little confused about these ideas; I feel there’s something to be worked out, something to be expressed. Maybe I don’t go to fiction or poetry when I feel that way. Maybe fiction and poetry are more playful than nonfiction, though I tend to write nonfiction — that is, I narrate whatever’s on my brain — pretty naturally. I often feel like I have observations or ideas or opinions to express, even if these aren’t always interesting to readers. Perhaps this is the heart of the obsessive-compulsive aspect of being a writer.

And perhaps the need to draw a distinction such as the one above between nonfiction and fiction/poetry is an impulse to understand by dividing, by categorizing — the impulse of Aristotle, that master maker of categories. But these categories, too, need not be more than temporary, like scaffolding, say.

And maybe “ideas as scaffolding” is a decent metaphor (as good as any other, no? since all metaphors are neither right nor wrong, neither true nor false, (he generalizes)).

Perhaps there’s an impulse to understand, to create an idea, a story, about real things, even though these stories can be flawed, inadequate, etc. And I’m also feeling an impulse to keep going on this post, but also feeling a competing intuition to end here, to let go, to try again another time, perhaps.

Nonfiction: Our bodies, our minds

Our bodies can be directly revealed to others, but our thoughts cannot. In a culture where bodies are not hidden much anymore, our minds are, or can be, hidden.  The big secret is now the mind? What we might communicate to others comes from a private place. The media show women’s bodies, often to sell products and movie tickets, but if they showed women’s minds … Maybe there are more people who want to see new bodies than there are people who want to hear new ideas? Media isn’t as quick with new concepts. Perhaps our culture is physically/sexually liberal but with ideas, conservative — in the sense of not wanting to reconsider things. There is a lot of info, facts, pictures, on TV, but not so much talk about creativity, new ideas — are ideas more sacrosanct than sex? Is that what “Brave New World” was getting at — let people have sex (or even encourage them to) so they don’t question basic ideas of society?

— Mh, Journal, 6 August 2009