Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Benefits Of Reading And Writing

Stepping back from the abstract for a moment, today I wish to embrace the practical.

Reading and writing are good for very different things.

Reading is a great way to gather information, but if you’re not careful it can fool you.  Reading, by itself, may bring only the illusion of understanding.

Writing about the things that we have read forces us to fill in these gaps in our knowledge of a subject; it may remind us that our understanding is incomplete.   In an academic setting, writing is a great benefit in that it can solidify our understanding. 

Writing requires a different kind of thinking and a different, deeper level of understanding.  At its best, it serves to lock what we know into our long-term memory. 

Law School Study

My academic career was all over the place.  Over the course of twenty-five years I went from being one of the worst university students in America to being one of the very good ones.  It really began to click for me when I started to approach it on a problem-solving level, and to treat it like a job. 

I started law school at the age of forty and by that time I was very interested in the whole process.  I even did research.  We had a blind grading system at my school; we were issued “grade numbers” and that was the only way in which our tests were identified.  Our final grades appeared on bulletin boards where we looked up our grade numbers to find our grades.  I figured out a way to discover the grade numbers of a sizeable group of my fellow students. 

We had many writing projects to do over the course of the semester.  When we handed them in we just put them in a box.  They were identified by our grade numbers.  I would wait to hand mine in until a suitable subject for study placed his or hers in the box before me, and then I would surreptitiously make a note of their grade numbers.  This enterprise got fascinating very quickly.

During first year we were grouped in three sections and had all of our classes together as a section.  Law school uses the Socratic Method, so there’s a lot of questions and answers in the classes.  It quickly became obvious that some students who always seemed well prepared, and seemed to understand the material very well, did not do well on the tests.  They understood the material well enough to talk about it but not well enough to write about it.  I established that this was due to the fact that they had not incorporated writing into their studies.  The first time they tried to write about it was on the test itself, and by then it was too late.

The best students wrote their own outlines for each class.  They synthesized the material first into a rather lengthy outline, and before the test they reduced this to a very brief “key word” out line.  This forced them to deal with the material in a concrete way.  I wasn’t among the best students, but I used this technique myself.  I did fine.

The Bar Exam

Here too, many of my friends were lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that when they scanned study outlines prepared by others they seemed to “remember” everything.  They had, indeed, read it all before.  This is comparable to the phenomenon of “recognition vocabulary,” as opposed to “usable vocabulary.”  We can understand our recognition vocabularies just fine when we read them somewhere, but we cannot use them when we speak or write for ourselves.  My friends remembered reading those things but they had not properly integrated the material into their short or long term memories.

The bar exam reminded many of them very forcefully that their understanding was incomplete.   My own bar preparation included a ton of writing.  Again, I did fine.

Non-Academic Reading

These days, people read a great deal of “news” and “opinion” on the Internet.  I put those words in quotes advisedly, because much of what the ‘Net describes as news or opinion is really no such thing, being mere propaganda instead.   The content of the Internet is severely compartmentalized, and the readers too often seek out sites that cater to their prejudices.   Oh, that’s a charged word, let’s say their prior convictions.  Confirmation bias is a danger.   By only reading sites that speak from the same point-of-view as the reader, the reader is reinforced in his existing beliefs. 

A great number of people who do most of their reading on the Internet become convinced that they are well informed, when in fact just the opposite is true.  They are only being fed a steady diet of talking points, bite-sized morsels prepared by people who wish to control their readers politically.  Slogans, like “Kenyan socialist.”  The readers go one step further.  Feeling themselves to be well informed, they become convinced that their own opinions are insightful and valuable.   Being constantly reinforced in all of this, they also become convinced that they are correct. 

Many of the comments left by Internet readers comically push aside any thought that they may be well informed or possessed of valuable opinions.  They either plagiarize other uninformed comments or quote from the talking points of the day.  That’s if they’re engaging with the issues at all, and not merely resorting to ad hominem attacks or specious character assassination.  Or worse. 

I wouldn’t suggest that Internet readers take notes on what they read, or start blogs, or keep notebooks.  That would be too much to ask from people whose lives are already up to fucking here with things to do.  I do not mean that sarcastically either, people are busy, I get it.  I would only ask that people, including me and, gentle reader, you, remain suspicious of what we read in general, and that in particular we remain suspicious of any information gained from casual reading.  

Perhaps before commenting on an individual post or article we should seek some confirmation of what it is that tweaks our outrage, and maybe even take a moment to think about the situation, before we launch off into a comment that may not present us in our best light. 

Or not!  I know that many people have friends who can hardly wait to see the next hilarious Michelle Obama “Wookie” picture.  And yes, that’s what this post is all about.  That shit dangerously raises my blood pressure, and I want it to stop immediately.  

No comments: