Monthly Archives: October 2021

The Art of Listening

My series of informal talks about learning at university continues this week on the topic of listening. This will nicely set up next week’s talk about talking. The better talker is often also the better listener, both in quick exchanges and in longer presentations. In my talk on Thursday, I intend to cover three kinds of listening:

  1. Listening in conversation.
  2. Listening to brief interventions in seminars and panel discussions.
  3. Listening to lectures.

There are two important features of conversation that distinguish it from the other two kinds of listening. First, you will not be taking notes. Second, you are preparing to say something in response. This means you’re listening, not so much for content, but for cues to keep the conversation moving. You are especially sensitive to the difficulties implicit in what your interlocutor is saying: do you find it hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with. And you’re ready to engage with these difficulties, demanding of the person your talking to that they support, elaborate or defend what they’re saying.

If you’re familiar with my views on writing, you’ll recognize these difficulties as the determinants of the rhetorical posture of individual paragraphs. Like a good paragraph, a good conversation is one that helps you believe, understand, or agree with claims you might not otherwise have. It offers you talk that is easier to believe, understand, or agree with than the core claims that are being talked about. And, importantly, if offers you countless pressure points at which to push back on and prompt your interlocutor to elicit more information. You are often listening for something that will answer your questions. So part of listening, here, is framing good questions, either in your mind, or in speech. They give you, precisely, a frame within which to receive the information.

Sometimes it’s not so much a matter of helping as of making; some people can be very persuasive when they talk to you. So it’s important that, as a listener, you try to remember what difficulty you were able to overcome in conversation that was more of a challenge when you were thinking or reading about these things, or even experiencing them first hand. When reflecting on the conversation later, remember to reassert your skepticism, your intelligence, and your convictions. Maybe the conversation just caught you a little off guard; there is no shame in that. The main thing was to participate in the conversation, not to stand firm on your own views. You grant things for the sake of argument in order to keep things moving. Later on, you can sort out the threads.

More formal situations give you less opportunity to engage, but also more resources to retain what is said. When you are listening to someone say something to a group of people, and there is no immediate responsibility on your shoulders to acknowledge the contribution or respond to it, you have a bit more freedom to listen in your own way, on your own terms. And you can now take notes. For short contributions in seminars or on panels, I normally just use the same notebook I carry with me to jot down my own thoughts. I usually put a note at the top of the page about who is talking (along with the date) and mark direct quotation with quotation marks and my own thoughts and comments within square brackets. (You can use any system that works for you.)

The art of listening to a lecture is, of course, even more closely related to the art of taking notes. But listening is not merely producing a transcription of what is being said. (If it were, you’d just be giving yourself a subsequent reading task.) Listening should be more active than that.

One way to be more active is simply to divide a sheet of paper down the middle.

In the left column, you write down what the speaker says, either as quotes (in quotation marks) or as paraphrases (not in quotes). Mark things you are uncertain about clearly (e.g., “???”) and, if possible, politely have the speaker/teacher clarify their meaning (then of course replace the question marks with the correct statement). It can also be a good idea to use a system of icons (emojis, if you will) to mark any non-linguistic inflections, like laughter or irony or sarcasm or anything else that might help you understand your notes later.

In the right column, you write down thoughts and questions that occur to you as you listen to the speaker. Depending on the speaker, this column may be much more or much less filled out than the left hand column. And the difference between the two columns will give an immediate visual impression of how the lecture affected you when you revisit it later. An empty right hand column meant that you were mainly internalizing the speaker’s contents, while one that is stuffed with ideas means that the speaker constantly made you think.

However you do it, this act of making room for your own thoughts in your notes is important — the two-column system lets you easily distinguish what the speaker says from what you were thinking at the time. And thinking is an incredibly important part of listening. You want to make sure that the words you are hearing are actually passing through your mind. You want to make sure that the speaker’s ideas are running into the ones you already have.

A good way to prepare for this is to show up for a lecture with some expectations about what will happen. You’ll probably have a good sense of how some of your teachers run their classes, so you can come prepared with an already structured outline of the notes you’ll take. Also, you can use the assigned reading to generate questions that you expect to hear answers to (or, failing that, that you can ask about). Show up curious, puzzled, hopeful, expectant, perhaps even a little worried, just don’t show up passive, completely open to whatever will happen. Allow yourself to be disappointed with a lecture. Even expectations that are disappointed give you a frame for listening.

These are just some lose thoughts for my talk tomorrow, which will be likewise informal. You have to find your own way of listening to conversations, interventions, and presentations, lasting from a few minutes to several hours. In developing your academic “ear”, please remember, as in all the activities of learning, to find a way to enjoy it. You’ll be doing a lot of it, remember, so you want to be able to do it not just well but pleasantly.

The Art of Writing

This week’s talk in the Art of Learning series is going to be very squarely “in my wheelhouse,” as they say. My goal is to present the core of my approach to academic writing in a structured improvisation lasting about one hour. There will then be plenty of time (another hour) to answer questions from the (live and online) audience. I have found that the second hour is especially useful, forcing me to clarify things that I said, a raising issues that I forgot to mention as I talked. As usual, I want to put some of my thoughts in blogpost form first.

My views on writing are inspired by figures as disparate as Ernest Hemingway and Roland Barthes. I believe they would support me in my conviction that writing, like reading, is an experience within experience. The task of the writer is to represent their experience in words that intersect meaningfully with the experience of the reader. (What the words mean depends on the shared the experiences of the reader and the writer.) Writing gives one human being access to the experience of another, allowing them to measure both the writer’s experience and their own, and, by that means, approach some objective sense of the “truth”. The future of our objectivity, we might say, depends on the history of writing.

Needless to say, we will begin with Hemingway’s iceberg. “The dignity of the movement of an iceberg,” he said, “lies in only one eighth of it being above water.” He said our writing should have such dignity, and he believed that, in the case of novelists and reporters, it came from the experience that the writer could safely leave out of the story because the reader would feel its presence anyway. The dignity of “academic” or “scholarly” writing, I will argue, comes from a variety of other sources, including experience, but also a lot of reading, and adds up to a formidable competence beneath the surface of our texts. (It is this competence, I should say, that my neologism “inframethodology” refers to.) Virginia Woolf wrote about “the loneliness that is the truth about things” but, while this may indeed be the ultimate subject of literature, academic writers have other things (and even objects!) to write about; scholarship deals with the truth that can be talked about to others.

Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. Some people feel confident in their own heads and when speaking to live audiences, but they lack that confidence when they write. Others feel confident, when thinking “on paper” but not when speaking in public. Find your strength in any one or two of the primary manifestations of academic knowledge (thinking, talking, writing) and then leverage it in your attempt to develop the other(s). Work from the center of your strength.

Last week I wanted to say more about how exactly to train your ability to think, how to extract the propositions from your beliefs and discover the possibilities implicit in their concepts and objects. I’m going to get a chance to say something about this on Thursday as part of the “seven disciplines” of academic writing, which is essentially the art of composing paragraphs and arranging them into essays and papers. The trick is to establish a serious “writing moment” at the beginning of each learning day. With a little discipline, you can sit yourself down every morning and address yourself for 20 or 30 minutes to a like-minded peer (imagine a serious, fellow student). Part of this discipline is deployed the day before, when you think of something to say; the rest is exercised as one of the first intellectually challenging tasks of the day. You find the difficulty in what you are saying and make your claim a little easier for your reader to believe, understand, or agree with. That’s what the art of academic writing is mostly about: supporting, elaborating, and defending propositions you think are are true.

The Art of Thinking

You can’t learn something without thinking about it. You have to “get your mind around it”, as they say. Some things require a great deal of thought, some just a moment of reflection, but there’s no way around the problem of thinking. It’s one of the skills you are developing as a university student; it may even be the most important one; and it will be the subject of my talk tomorrow afternoon in the Art of Learning series. As usual, I want to use a blog post to prepare, working through the three levels on which I intend to approach the question.

First, thinking is the art of making up your mind, of forming a belief. It’s the process by which you reach a judgment about what is going on, or what it means. This judgment can then be expressed in a sentence and that’s actually what we mean when we say a sentence “expresses a thought”. And the important thing about judgments, assertions, and sentences as the foci of our thinking is that they can be wrong; a sentence doesn’t have to be true to be meaningful. We can even think something is true — that is, we can believe something — without it actually being so. Thinking isn’t yet knowing (if we define knowing as justified, true belief); it is a matter of putting things and ideas together in our minds to form propositions, i.e., the contents of our mental states.

The father of modern analytic philosophy, Gottlob Frege, once suggested that concepts are just “functions” that take objects as “arguments” and, when they do this, their value is “true” or “false”. In mathematics you can have a function like f(x) = x+2 and if you put 6 in for x (if you make 6 the argument of the function), its value is 8. Frege asked us to imagine a function like f(x) = “x is a horse”. If you put Bobbie in for x (if you make Bobbie the argument of the function) it is false. But if you put Secretariat in for x, it is true. In that sense, the concept “horse” lets us make true and false judgments about things in the world. Indeed, it lets us think about every single blessed thing in the universe; it lets us consider whether it is a horse or not. We might say that thinking is the art bringing concepts and objects together “for the sake of argument”.

The second level on which I want to approach thinking is as a means with which we can distinguish belief from understanding and imagination. We can never be sure that we know something because we can never be sure that what we believe is true. We always think we know things. We can understand the sentence “Bobbie is a horse” just as well as we can understand the sentence “Secretariat is a horse” but only one of them is true. Here “thinking” can be seen as way of bringing true and false sentences onto a level playing field so that they can be compared to each other. In understanding, that is, the two sentences are equals, they mean comparable things. This also means that we can form an image of the two animals in our minds. To think, you have to use your imagination.

And this brings us to the third level, which is perhaps the most philosophical, even “transcendental” level. Thinking can shift our perspective from our beliefs and judgments, to our understanding and imagination, and then on to the “conditions of the possibility” of our objects of knowledge. We can reflect upon how things must be (think ontologically) and how our minds must work (think epistemologically) in order for it to be possible to know them. When Kant tried to do this, he focused on what he called our “intuitions”, the sense in which objects are “given” to us, as it were, “immediately”. We see a horse and recognize it immediately because the concept and object come together instantly when we see the horse on the meadow. But how is this possible?

That’s something we can think about. We can try to catch ourselves in the act of making these snap judgments and we can notice that sometimes they lead us astray and sometimes they save us a lot of time. Kant tried to capture the things we always already get right in experience, the things that must be true for us to have any experiences at all. But we can recognize the “contingency” of these intuitions, too, the sense in which particular experiences depend on a variety of different factors. Some of those factors have a long history, some a broad sociology, and some a deep psychology. There are things that are very difficult to believe, and even imagine, but some of them are, indeed, difficult even to think. Something — something in our livesseems to prevent us from “going there” immediately — we have to find a “back way” to them, if you will. As Heidegger put it, the whole point of metaphysical thinking is to “prepare a free relationship” to the things we think we understand. This requires us to think.

I realize that all of this is a bit philosophical. And I want to assure you that you don’t have think this deeply (if that’s what I am) about everything all the time. In fact, I recommend that you don’t, and instead develop some strategies for deciding when to think at the different levels I’ve suggested and how long to remain there. Most of your thinking should consist of the free arrangement concepts and objects in the construction of propositions that you can then try to decide whether are true or false. Some of your thinking — probably also quite a bit of it — will involve trying to understand what those propositions really mean, and trying to imagine the facts that they imply. Finally, you will sometimes run into the limits of your thinking; you will feel less free to think certain things that you’d like and you will have to try to explore the conditions under which you are doing it. “I can’t work under these conditions!” as the old complaint goes. Well, have a look at them. See if there’s something you can do about it. Think.

In my talk, I will try get all this to make a little more sense. You have to do a lot of thinking at university. There are different kinds of thinking and different ways to do it. My ways aren’t the only ones that work and the important thing is to find your own way of thinking — one that works for you. My view is that our ability to think can be improved by deliberate practice, and tomorrow I will try not to forget (as I almost did last week) to emphasize that being good at something means being able to enjoy it. To become good at thinking you have learn to take pleasure in it, to find the joy in it. It can be as fun as imagining dragons.