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We live by doing
- Verbs identify agents. They tell us Who.
- Verbs point out activity. They suggest What.
- Verbs indicate means. They describe How.
- Verbs locate happenings. They indicate Where.
- Verbs announce events. They state When.
- Verbs express intentions. They inform us Why.
- Verbs identify agents. They tell us Who.
V 1 — Why do you make a deal about verbs? When I want help doing something, I go to a "How-to-site." It's not hard to get the low down on just about anything on sites like wikiHow, the YouTube How To Channel, C|NET's How To, LifeHacker, or Smarter Living on the NY Times, to name a few. Are you trying to compete with all that?
R 2 — No, not directly. Here we concentrate on verbs, on the specific forms of acting that each verb indicates. Through verbs we understand how and why we might act, or not act, in the course of life. It's not how-to, but choosing. By thinking about verbs, we develop our possibilities, we form ourselves, we learn liberally. Verbs! With verbs we clarify our life choices, we expand options, we strengthen our capacities to pursue them; with verbs we recognize ignorance, we note pitfalls, we correct mistakes, we overcome difficulties; with verbs we feed curiosity, we perceive opportunities; with verbs we improve judgment, we strengthen purpose, perhaps we even acquire some wisdom!
V 3 — Hey man. Stay tethered! You sound good, but so does a lot of hype. YouTube has more than enough talks telling us "How to find happiness everyday!" Be real, and to use another verb, "Explain." What's up with verbs here?
R 4 — Got it. I'll state the basic idea and then we can explore the questions that I'm sure will follow. But I'll need your attention and cooperation in working with me.
V 5 — Go to it! I'm the young one, ready to go!
R 6 — Good. Here's the basic idea. A Place to Study is not a how-to site, nor an academic research site. We are a site for anyone anywhere concerned with their self-formation, anyone who senses their ignorance and feels curious in response, anyone who wants to cultivate their capacities for thoughtful, purposeful activity. We believe that all persons think and communicate in order to act in ways that they find meaningful and valuable. Verbs, which express our ways of acting, have a special importance in our thinking and communicating.
V 7 — May I interrupt? You talk here about thinking and acting, which we, as persons experience; it's my business; I'm the locus of it. You also talk about communicating, which involves interaction between two or more persons or organizations; it's a group business, so to speak; I'm one of several foci in it. How does the personal and the group relate?
R 8 — That's a big question! And an important one that I'll say just a little about. Note how your question just now turned our attention to something implicit in what I was saying. In my opinion, thinking and acting take place in and through each person, in and through each living being in some way appropriate to it, and the control of thinking and acting takes place through complex feedbacks, which scan a continuous flux of awareness — seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, moving — fixing attention and sustaining concentration on meaningful elements of the flux. I suspect that speech and gesture, interpersonal communication, start and build upon thinking and acting as a way to initiate and sustain shared attention, and that is really the function of language.
V 9 — That's interesting, but not entirely clear. If I hear you right, you are saying that language does not convey my actual thinking, but rather directs attention and awareness of context in a way that helps others at some preconscious, prelinguistic level to think the thought themselves, or thoughts pertinent to the object of attention. Why then are verbs so important?
R 10 — Nouns and other parts of speech identify, name, and describe matters of fact. They have less significance for how we attend to matters in thinking, feeling, and acting. Verbs pertain to what takes place in thinking, feeling, and acting. They direct and nuance attention; they indicate what's happening, what takes place, and thus convey the import, the meaning and value, of the eventuality. We communicate with language because we have shared capacities for what the verbs represent.
Through her doing, a person creates meaning in her life.
V 11 — Hmm.... What you say is interesting, but I sense you've left out some important steps in what you are trying to say. How will attending to verbs, words indicating different forms of thinking, feeling and acting, actually improve our capacities to do the form of doing indicated by the verb? You know the saying, "It's easier said than done." Don't you risk just helping people talk a good game?
R 12 — I hope not. But you are right to press on it. Here's where the distinction between teaching and coaching comes in. We don't want to have people just talk about different forms of doing that verbs indicate. We want to help sensitize people to think the actual feel and nuance of the acting. In talking about an action, you might say "I picked the cup up, but it slipped from my hand." But you can also think the action in your mind without executing it, thinking how you reached out somewhat inattentively, lightly grasping the handle at its edges so that it dropped as you raised it up. I've put that in words, but you can think it silently, feeling your inattention and imperfect grasping in your mind.
V 13 — I'm a little uncertain what you mean about thinking the action in my mind. Words about it get in the way a bit. Standing still, I can sort of feel how muscles will pushed hard when I try to walk real fast and it feels different if I call to mind walking slowly. Is that an example of what you mean?
R 14 — Yes. We do that a lot when we read silently, but noiselessly voicing the words in our minds, inwardly listening to them. We can do that with all sorts of actions — driving, grocery shopping, knitting a sweater, kicking a ball, addressing an audience. Speed reading teaches people not to vocalize in the mind and just to look for words, hopefully important ones, skipping along down the page. That's OK for slurping up information, but as a result the reader can really only talk about the text, having picked up what's covered in it. To think what the writer has said and how she has said it requires closer reading. We really understand things much better by acting them out in our minds and we communicate real understanding by finding ways to get another to think for themselves in their own minds what we are saying.
V 15 — I hear you — but it may take a bit for it to sink in so I can think it for myself. But you were going to say something about teaching and coaching. Maybe that'll help.
R 16 — Right, it's important, but it's a bit complicated, so bear with me as I ask you some questions. To begin, what does good teaching do?
V 17 — It communicates information and knowledge and helps another understand it. Good teaching sometimes excites curiosity and it can even inspire someone occasionally, but I think that happens less through the teaching itself and more through some quality that an inspired student finds emanating from the teacher.
R 18 — Yeah. For now let's stick with the idea that good teaching communicates knowledge and promotes understanding of it. Now tell me what good coaching does. Is it the same as good teaching, or different in some way?
V 19 — I'd say that coaching involves some knowledge and understanding; there's a lot of how-to, good form, and the clever move involved. And there's a script or a game plan organizing things. But in the end, good coaching should lead to a person or team to playing well, performing at full potential. Ah! Let simply say — allowing a bit of fuzziness — that good teaching affects what others know and good coaching improves what they can do. Of course, teachers coach some and coaches teach some, but predominantly teaching involves knowing and coaching doing.
R 20 — Great! But what is really different?
V 21 — Huh. Will this end? In my experience — I don't think I've experienced either a really great teacher or great coach, but I've experienced pretty good ones — ... in my experience teaching is a kind of one-off process — as a student, you hear it and read it once and you're supposed to get it and then you move on. Sure, there're exercises with some stuff and sometimes review classes, but the teacher has a syllabus to cover. You're supposed to get it once — students with a good teacher get it once and get it, and move on, while students with a bad teacher get it once and don't get it, and move on. You see the difference in teaching in end-of-year exams. Coaching is more repetitive.
R 22 — How so?
V 23 — In place of a final exam, there's a succession of games or performances, and in between there are practices which are pretty much repetitions of repetitions. The coach says, "Do it again, but try it a bit more this way." Or, "Harder!" "Again!" "Faster!"
R 24 — OK, but tell me how all this repeating works. How do you get better from it?
V 25 — Well they say, "Practice makes perfect." But right. That doesn't hack it, does it? The relation between thinking and doing is pretty complicated. When I learned to drive there was a lot that I knew I was supposed to do, but thinking to myself, "use the turn signal," would get me in a muddle because I was also thinking to use the breaks and the steering wheel and each took some conscious attention. It wasn't until I had a little practice that they all fit together easily. How did that happen? How might practice make perfect? Can you tell me?
R 26 — Knowing, especially knowing that something is the case, really is a kind of one-off matter — you don't know it and once you know it, you know it. Doing something is different. Almost everything we do, we do many times. We take many steps in walking and we walk many times in life. How many times have you breathed in and breathed out? But repetition isn't always the same thing one time after another. We can breathe deeply, or quickly, or hold our breath for a time. And we can think our repetitive actions and try out different ways of doing them in our heads and then actually try out a new twist, sometimes to good effect, other times bad.
V 27 — When you say we can think our repetitive actions, do you mean consciously thinking them or tacitly thinking them beneath the level of consciousness?
R 28 — Yes. Thinking too much about doing something while trying to do it can seriously impede one's effort. Good coaching helps us develop our awareness of possible adjustments and facilitates our actual incorporating them into our new efforts. We do that through a process of recursion, which arises as we incorporate the results of prior iterations of an action in successive iterations of it. Practice makes perfect through effective recursing, attending to what we are doing and successively incorporating possibilities into what we are doing as we judge them likely to lead to improvement or to avoid complications.
V 29 — OK, I'm beginning to grasp what you are after with all your interest in verbs. The successive instances of a repetitive action become recursive when insight gained from one instance becomes significant in the succeeding instance. We learn by doing as we make what we do recursive. But I had several teachers who would use repetition, drill and practice and memorization as a means of instruction far too much. And my mom keeps trying to have my little sister use a program of math exercises on her tablet that Sis hates because it is so boring.
R 30 — Yeah. For centuries, educators have warned against reliance on repetition and rote learning as instructional methods. But it keeps coming back, usually for the wrong reasons. It's the recursion, not the repetition, that counts. A teacher can tell a kid to repeat something, but he can't very well make the repetition recursive. That's something the kid has to do. A coach can point out a move that would become recursive if the kid incorporates it into his action, but the kid has to do the incorporating, he has to get the feel of it and integrate it into the active flow.
V 31 — The student has to take advantage of repeating something, noticing the effect of variations from one time to the next. For the most part, teachers don't generate or control recursion for others, each student does. A cook who doesn't try her own dishes won't become a master chef. I'm seeing this pretty clearly with what we actually do. Playing basketball, you see someone make a move and think "I could do that" and when the opportunity comes, you try it and mess it up, but sense why, and with a succession of clumsy trials it begins to work, and soon it becomes part of your game.
R 32 — I wish! But even when I could run, I was too short to have much of a game, as you say.
V 33 — Well, I still don't quite grasp the importance of thinking the verb that you seem to consider important. I'm just out there trying to spin away from the guy blocking me.
R 34 — Right. I don't think your emulation of someone's basketball move is simply physical. You are there, feeling blocked, and there is a spark of recognition, a feeling — feint left at him, spin right, step clear to shoot — you sense in that instant how the move works and you try it, and when you first try and mess it up, you adjust your feel of it mentally, rechoreographing it, and you put that adjusted feel in motion on the court the next chance you have to try it. The recursion takes place through your inward processing of the action, consciously and unconsciously, in the interstices between successive occurrences of the action.
V 35 — Doesn't this have something to do with mirror neurons that cognitive scientists talk about?
R 36 — Something. I'm not well versed in cognitive science, but I think a little mystification arises in calling them mirror neurons. I'm pretty sure that what they do differs from the process of reflection that a mirror does even though there is some likeness comparing the results. What do the so-called mirror neurons do? I surmise — mind you, I'm not a researcher and just reflect on it — these neurons, perhaps other neurons as well, process the initiation and anticipated feedback of different actions without actually carrying the actions out.
V 37 — Are you suggesting that the capacity to process the intellection involved in acting without carrying out the acting enables some sentient creatures to mirror other minds and engage in other forms of feeling and thinking? I can imagine that separation to be significant in many forms of cultural activity.
R 38 — Yes. I suspect the meaning of much of what takes place mentally arises through that separation. Language works as a means to bring it to consciousness. Our ability to direct our attention from one thing to another would suggest we are processing many different kinds of matters at once with them quite disengaged from our acting on them. Sleep seems to shut down many modes of action.
V 39 — Ah! You know how a well designed program will give you an indication that it is working when it is doing something slow in the background. I wonder if fidgeting, a twitch or an itch, are such signals when certain feedback systems are idling with nothing to do.
R 40 — Interesting possibility. Like pinching yourself to make sure you are awake.
V 41 — OK. I'm seeing a little better the relation between thinking a verb and the possibility of recursion. In order to mentally grasp recursive possibilities, we have to be thinking the action of the relevant verb, sensing what we would do to adjust our acting in a fruitful way. As I recurse an action in my own mind, I gain the information and nuance to power recursion. By thinking how we do verbs indicates possibilities we incorporate into the next ... ah! ha! Can we say we rehearse them. We rehearse things, mentally and actively, in order to work on them recursively, uncovering their possibilities and working those into practice.
R 42 — Your jumping from recursing to rehearsing here points to something important. Both have to do with repetition, but the key thing in rehearsing involves repeating or reciting in an interpersonal setting. In some ways, recursing is more open ended than rehearsing. With a good director, the rehearsals of a play become recursive, extending the script and its interpretation in performance. Recursion takes place when someone uses a function over and over again, each time incorporating possibilities disclosed to them through its prior activity.
V 43 — OK, outside of special settings like rehearsing a play, does recursion work open-endedly in daily life?
R 44 — When my grand daughter was two she wrapped her fist around a pencil, stabbed a sheet of paper with it, squiggled it around making a weird convoluted line, and looked up, mildly satisfied, and said "Bird." She's now 14 and has sketched many more birds and other things and become quite accomplished, largely self-taught, thinking about how and why the result of a sketch differed from what she wanted it to be and trying to incorporate that understanding into her next effort. She formed her artistic capacities by capturing a lot of feedback from her circumstances, employing it recursively in building up her skills.
V 45 — Yeah. Isn't this a lot like what John Dewey would talk about in Democracy and Education as learning through the reconstruction of experience?
R 46 — Yes, only we are attending more closely to the agent doing the recursing. You know from your computer course that a recursive function needs to be controlled effectively, especially calling it into operation and then terminating it at the right time in the right way. Programming the computer and living in the world have similarities, but in the end differ, I think. In programming, you write and run recursive functions recursively, and in instructional educational settings something very similar seems to go on as teachers work through the curriculum and sequences of courses and classes, instructing their students. Instruction differs, however, because the instructor has little information about or control over the recursing the students are doing.
V 47 — Er.... Let me see if I really understand your point with respect to A Place to Study. I'm beginning to see that it's pretty radical. You're suggesting that in formal instruction it's difficult to make use of recursing because calling an action into operation, getting attention latched onto it through its operation, and then deciding when to stop it and moving onto something else is not really in the control of the teacher and the formal curriculum. Is that the limiting factor you hope A Place to Study will sidestep??
R 48 — Yes. What does didactic thinking obsess over — arousing interest and maintaining attention. As sentient, living persons, all of us embodied in ourselves and inextricably in the world around us, we cannot turn over to another actual control of our awareness and concentration, our interest and attention. The design of formal instruction postulates the plastic pupil who will manage his recursive effort according to the plan of instruction. All sorts of artless and artful incentives get deployed to get each actual pupil to perform according to plan. That works to a degree that varies immensely across the full range of actual students. At its best that degree falls far short of full human potential. We need to try an alternative system.
V 49 — Don't you mean that we need to complement the instructional system with another one that more effectively recognizes each person's control over their recursive development?
R 50 — Thanks. I don't want to overstep. I don't think we can or should give up our systems of instruction, but in addition to those we can and should support a freer form of self-education, one that I think can capture the power of recursive self-development more effectively.
V 51 — Well, let's not let our speculations stop merely with a glimpse of the goal. Contemplating it, we need to go back down to understand how actual students working with verbs on A Place to Study can manage their recursive self-formation.
R 52 — Fair enough. A Platonic bit shines through there. We would like users to reflect on the who, what, how, where & when, and how of acting in the ways that various verbs that catch their interest indicate. We hope they will reflect on them recursively in order to deepen and enlarge their capacities to use such modes of action in their lived experience. What we want to have happen here is more like coaching, than teaching, a kind of self-coaching.
V 53 — Can you fill out what you mean by that?
R 54 — Hmm. You know, V, I'm a little tired, a little old. We've been through some heavy stuff. We tend to think of "going back" as a movement from here to there, but it is just as well thought of as a sense of the direction. And what's the direction? It's somewhat paradoxical, going back, always looking for the recursive opportunity, the chance to expand perception and action by integrating new experience into it. A Place to Study gives us a place to continually go back as visitors and as residents as students, as recursers, and filling it out isn't something you and I just do in words. It'll be what we, all of us, over years, decades, perhaps even centuries, do to build our capacities for human life recursively.
V 55 — I'm getting tired too, but you know, as we've been talking I've started to think that people pretty naturally have a recursive interest in verbs, more a natural interest in the ways of acting that the verbs indicate. Not mere, say, in playing catch with someone, throwing the ball back and forth, but in playing catch to think about throwing the ball. I really like trying things out and getting a sense I can do something that seemed beyond me.
R 56 — I agree. For instance, people are rather spontaneously curious about watching people working and playing. But although engaging, recursively mastering different ways of acting presents challenges. It seems to happen with progressive difficulty, first taking place almost automatically but then becoming more and more difficult to sustain — unpredictable, potentially repetitive in a boring kind of way, or overwhelmingly confusing as we see more and more things pertinent to what we are doing. Whatever the activity, a fair number of people seem to become passably competent, while very few achieve surpassing excellence, although from time to time a prodigy may appear, no one knowing quite how or why. Doing things together may push the recursion further and/or faster. We hope participants on the worksite will reflect on their self-coaching and tell us all what seems helpful and what a hindrance.
V 57 — This back and forth has given me a lot to think about. At first, I didn't understand very well how verbs could have special importance in thinking and communicating. What you said just seemed like a starting point, some words to begin with. But then as we talked back and forth and asked questions and had ideas and sort of thought about ourselves doing all that as we were doing it, I've started to recognize that that has been not just me engaging in talk about thinking, but in the course of it I've —, we've really been thinking some new thoughts and I feel them fitting together, making sense, and we've actually communicated some things with each other because we've been thinking them in our own minds, not just in words. I've heard talk about "the inner life," and this isn't that. In such talk, the phrase is too fixed. But as we've gone back and forth, we've lived inwardly and we've worked to understand each other, not perfectly or completely, but substantively. It takes work, but you know, I think I can think for myself in this way a little better, slowing down, experiencing silently in my mind the acting suggested by my words and the words you've said, working out what we might think and do in all that. I imagine I won't be able to hold it in mind all the time. I already feel all the outer stuff pressing back in on my reflections. But I expect we'll have other opportunities to get back into our heads, and when I do, I'll have more confidence in what's going on. And get more from it. Well, so long. Thanks. I'll be back. Let's keep building the inner life!