On specifying your terms

One of the books I read over the Christmas vacation was Writing the Mind Alive, which one Amazon reviewer tags as the book to go to after freewriting has taken you as far it can. I used to write morning pages and still enjoy journaling, but I'm always open to new approaches and methods (the Topics du Jour approach being one that has most impressed me recently). The method was created by two ex-academics, who lead workshops on the method. Their web site is here.

The book is an easy and breezy read, and I appreciated the inclusion of students' "Writes" (as the authors call them). The method is straightforward and, as some of the Amazon reviewers notes, not all of the ritual surrounding the Write--which includes lighting a candle and playing Baroque music--are really necessary. Also, the book (as one would expect) sings the praises of its "proprioceptive method," affording it real and affecting emotional benefits to its practitioners.

What most separates the method, for me, is its direction to use what the authors call the “proprioceptive question” or PQ. As one transcribes one’s inner monologue and writes, “I hate it when my mother does that,” the method directs one to listen to the voice and then ask, “What do I mean by ___?” In this case, “what do I mean by hate?” or “what do I mean by that?” And then write out what you mean.

The goal, as the authors explain, is to dig out those details that are glossed over by the wallpaper words we use to not look too closely at the things that bother us. What do I mean by things? Remembered events, memories, assumptions, images, long-buried hurts, and the like.

I usually count a technical book a success if I can get at least one good idea out of it. I consider the PQ a good idea and one I’m going to start using in my own journaling. As I’ve found in my coaching and in monitoring my own self-talk, I will often make a blanket statement as if to say. “Of course, what I've said is true and inviolable and not to be questioned.” But as I’ve gotten rid of various blocks and taken risks and experienced successes, I’m seeing more and more the value of exercising some healthy skepticism by making my assumptions explicit and bringing them out into the open where they can be dealt with.

The whole idea of defining one’s terms hove into my view first due to an email newsletter by Laurie Taylor, host of BBC4 Radio’s Thinking Allowed. I admire the way Taylor always attempts to connect that week’s program to a personal anecdote and his lighthearted style is welcome. Here’s his 21-Dec-2008 newsletter:

I had a university tutor in psychology who was popularly known as Doctor Dit.  For a couple of terms I assumed along with my fellow students that this was an innocent nickname.  But then one day I was told by a postgraduate that it was really an acronym.  It was not DIT but DYT and the letters stood for Define Your Terms.

It was a very appropriate designation.  Whereas other tutors would positively encourage some debate in their seminars, the man known as DYT would immediately bring any such discussion to a halt by a demand for definitions.  It was not unlike being repeatedly hit over the head ‘Right.  Taylor, what is value of optical illusions in the study of perception?’ ‘Well,’ one would begin, ‘When your eyes are deceived it could be that the deception is the inappropriate application…’ ‘Not so fast, Taylor.  You said ‘deception?’ ‘That’s right’ ‘Define your terms.  Define your terms.’

Over coffee in the basement canteen we’d wonder about the nature of Dyt’s home life.  We’d construct scenarios in which Mrs Dyt turned to him over breakfast coffee one morning and announced her dissatisfaction with the sexual side of their marriage.  ‘We don’t make love any more.’  That would really get Dyt going.  ‘Make love?  Make love?  Define your terms.  Define your terms.’

Now that I look back on my time with Doctor Dyt, I feel more sympathetic to his intellectual crusade.  What he wanted to do was purge the world of all ambiguity and ambivalences.  He envisaged a time when people only used terms with precise definitions, a time when every flower in his intellectual garden would be precisely labelled.

Only when we reached that happy state, when the undergrowth of uncertainty had been cleared away, would we be able to arrive at hard and fast truths about the world.

But, of course, Dr Dyt’s enterprise was doomed to failure.  Words simply won’t sit still and have precise definitions hung around their necks.  Their meaning slips and slides: it is determined as Wittgenstein maintained by their many uses:

“Think of the tools in a toolbox: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.  The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.  (And in both cases there are similarities.)  Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script or print.  For their application is not presented to us so clearly.”

I’ve plucked that quotation from the introduction to Key Concepts in Education, a new book by Fred Inglis and Lesley Aers which doesn’t so much offer clear-cut definitions of such familiar educational terms as Assessment, Citizenship, Curriculum, Literacy and Pedagogy, as show how such terms have been variously used by people with different material and philosophical interests.  Dr Dyt would not have approved.

I think Taylor heightens his professor’s point of view and his own reaction for comic effect and to make a better point for the newsletter. But as I read about Dr. Dyt’s approach, I was thinking, “Yep, yep, good for you. That’s the way to do it. Don't lecture. Let the student teach themselves.” When working with my coach or talking with one of my mentors at school, I find I do often have to say my assumptions out loud. I frequently find that the other person has a different assumption or interpretation of the term or concept; because I'm open about what I think I mean, they’re able to either set me straight or give me new information I wasn’t aware of.

A very simple tool, and easily dismissed because of its simplicity. But I think it has great potential, particularly in school, where I’m asking questions to associate new knowledge to old mental structures so as to create new structures. Defining one's terms also helps thicken those endless essays and papers. And as I prepare to move into a potential role as teacher, I’m wondering how best to deploy this tool for good educational effect.

The key is to not become Dr. Dyt (if he was ever like that). Don't ask the question endlessly of every word or idea that comes your way. Set boundaries so you don't distract yourself. In the proprioceptive writing method, the Write is limited to 25 minutes, with specific follow-up questions to help the writer link the new information from the Write into a larger mental frame.

Michael Lewis, in a remarkable article on the end of the Wall Street boom he documented in his book Liar's Poker, offered up this choice anecdote on the value of getting specific:

Both Daniel and Moses enjoyed, immensely, working with Steve Eisman. He put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. “Steve’s fun to take to any Wall Street meeting,” Daniel says. “Because he’ll say ‘Explain that to me’ 30 different times. Or ‘Could you explain that more, in English?’ Because once you do that, there’s a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they’re talking about. And a lot of times, they don’t!”

This also reminds me of the five whys method, used to find root causes of problems--stop at five. No need to burrow further down the rabbit hole (or your navel) to find the ultimate cause; after a certain point, you have to stop and put that information into action. Otherwise, the questioning becomes an exercise in itself, rather than a means to an end.

There’s a famous story of Confucius from the Analects:

Chi Wen Tzu always thought three times before acting. When Confucius heard of this, he said: "Twice is enough."

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