Technology and active listening

You can never tell how big or how serious a trend is just from reading it about it in the newspaper, so when Melissa Korn wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that college professors are increasingly banning laptops from their classrooms, I had to ask, what kind of growth and what kind of absolute numbers are we talking about? Like, two percent? Three guys the reporter ran into at a bar? But I’m intrigued, and maybe even gladdened, if there’s any trend that direction at all, because the more I’ve considered the ways I read, write, listen, and take notes, the less optimistic I am about the role of computers in those activities.

For example: I’ve been researching a new novel that takes place in Pennsylvania during the Civil War, and so I’m reading and digging widely — about the war, Pennsylvania German culture and language, the locations where the action occurs, farming practices, and so on. Some of this gets pretty specific: How would you build a fence, from start to finish, relying on your Pennsylvania woodlot and hand tools? What would your mobility be like with an unrepaired ACL tear? I started out from old habit doing historical research using Zotero to take notes, but while traditional formal notetaking practice is great for academic citations and bibliographies, it’s cumbersome if you’re writing fiction and all you need is plausibility. And while the ability to keyword-search a two-year corpus of research is tremendously useful if you’re writing a dissertation or a monograph, most of what I find myself asking comes up as I’m writing and is used almost immediately. Not to mention that if I’m reading a book while I wait to pick up my daughter from dance class, I have to carry my laptop with me.

So a few weeks ago I switched to using a bound notebook, hand-numbering the pages, and indexing topics in the front. It’s simpler and more convenient. But it’s also improved my research in a couple of interesting ways. For one thing, when I’m writing (which I do on a laptop, for very different but equally practical reasons), I don’t have to switch to another app to check my notes; I can flip through my notebook on my desk. Why is that better? Because I don’t lose my place in what I’m writing, and I’m not tempted to, say, check my email. The notebook doesn’t shift my focus.

notebook and pen

I also find, as I’ve found in any number of other tasks, that the body plays a role in memory. I am often quicker recalling where in the notebook a bit of information was, and in fact where on the page it was, than I am in remembering what keyword I used to index it. Even better, I’m more likely now to find that I don’t have to refer to my notes at all, because the very act of writing something down — and I mean writing it by hand with a pen — helps commit it to memory in a way that typing it doesn’t. (Let alone cutting and pasting.) Continue reading “Technology and active listening”

Listening with the ears of God

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on October 5, 2014.

Matthew 21:33–46

One afternoon last week I spent a little time at the Durham Arts Council, walking through the galleries, looking at the exhibitions of work by local artists. The great thing about the Arts Council galleries is that I never know what I’m going to get. It’s completely unpredictable. It could be photography or landscape painting, but it could be abstract sculpture or “fiber architecture” or (as it once was) hats. And it’s all completely new. There’s nothing familiar about any of it — no artist whose biography I recall from some class I took back in the late twentieth century, no named period whose history I can mentally outline. I don’t have any easy context for the art, no prefab intellectual framework into which I can place it. I’m always surprised. And so I just have to stand there awhile and… look at it.

Unless… I make the mistake of reading the artists’ statements. For those of you who don’t frequent art galleries, an artist’s statement is what an artist writes to explain and to justify his or her work, generally as a requirement for getting a grant or arranging a show. They have a reputation for being pretentious, and that’s not entirely undeserved. Ideally they function as a kind of introduction to the art, making it more easily accessible — but in a way, that might be worse. Because if you read it, then suddenly, without any effort at all, you know what the art is supposed to be about. You’re absolved of the necessity of looking at the art, and this fascinating mystery the artist has created for you has been turned instead into a mere puzzle — to which you, now, have the solution!

And for me… The entire experience of looking at the art has been spoiled.

It isn’t that I don’t care what the artist had in mind… It’s rather that I’m inclined to think that whatever I gain from simply being with the art, from truly looking for a little while, even if I walk away with no understanding I could articulate to anyone, outweighs any answers I might be given for free, and that the possibility of that experience vanishes the moment I turn the mystery of a work of art into a puzzle and start looking for solutions.

If you’re wondering why I’m taking this opportunity to confess my antipathy toward artists’ statements, bear with me.

You see, I find myself drawn to the very first thing Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading: “Listen to another parable.” That’s all. It doesn’t seem like much. But as far as I can tell, nobody in the story actually does listen — either in Matthew’s story or in the parable itself! In the parable, of course, the landowner sends servants to collect fruit from his tenants, and then he sends his own son, and every time the tenants pretty much literally shoot the messenger. (Or, well, stone him, anyway.) Not much listening going on there. The Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking, meanwhile, seem intent mainly on figuring out who he’s pointing his finger at. When they “perceive that he was speaking about them,” as Matthew says, they decide to have him arrested — though not immediately, because the crowd, having just seen Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey is too busy shouting Hosanna and proclaiming him king to listen long enough to know just what sort of king they’re welcoming. Nobody’s just listening. Everybody, on both levels of the story, is trying to figure out what this guy’s angle is. What are you up to? What do you want from me? or— What’s in it for me? Continue reading “Listening with the ears of God”