Where.Study groups

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Our landmarks

We start with a proposal for a study group on Michel de Montaigne as an initial write-up of an effort to prototype a study group on A Place to Study. As we gain experience with such prototypes, we will draft a general discussion about forming our study groups.
Montaigne study group 01/17/2022 to 03/21/2022.

Study groups occur often in instructional settings. There powerful incentives drive them, significant examples arise as we engage in studying for the test. The Paper Chase, an excellent film, depicted the power and pathologies of such study groups well. On A Place to Study we have the task of redesigning study groups as a context for spurring study without relying on external motivators.

Let's begin by noting how powerfully the external motivators determine how we perceive what a study group does, how it works, and what to expect in one. External motivators do not simply explain why students form one; they determine what the students forming one seek to do through it, how they organize it, and what they do in it. The motivators move us to do much more than prepare for this or that exam, mere visible bits of a great frozen mass beneath. It's Harvard Law, and all the other meritocratic contexts. They mark everyone, some as those who made it, the rest as those who did not. With luck and hard work, we all run through sequential competitions, each test compounding prior consequences, each working to categorize and sort the further, prospective tracks, better and worse ones, which lead, with further luck and more hard work, to expectations about power and wealth — deficiencies for many, for some limited, some sufficient, and for those marked most able, immense. These pressures have been in effect from childhood, almost universally, for many generations. Might they be a croc?

To categorize, sort, and rank, the meritocratic systems of instruction group aspirants, require them to master a difficult mass of conventional materials, and measure their relative performance on peremptory exams driven by weighty incentives. By suspending incentives on A Place to Study, the raison d'être for all that disappears. What possibilities can then emerge? Let's imagine what happens, in our hopes, at least, with a small dinner party, 6 or 8 friends in conversation, diverse in experience, interested broadly in intersecting concerns, relaxed, both boss and mother-in-law not among the present company. At once attentive and spontaneous, everyone interacts, drawing on their diversity and commonality of experience and interest. One asks a provocative question, another tells a memorable story, someone flirts, another kids about it, the youngest asks for some advice, which sets off a volley of conflicting suggestions. The participants experience different feelings, think different thoughts, but share a satisfying pleasure, until — How late! — the guests depart with a sense of completion, fulfilling and meaningful. It's conviviality — the art of living together.

Of course, most dinner parties don't live up to that ideal, and further, a dowdy study group, even on A Place to Study, won't have the ease and insouciance of that ideal. But for the study group here, the absence of external incentives break the constraints on the participants' agency. Each can be more authentic, spontaneous, trusting, inquiring, reflective — actually, there's nothing to lose. Members of a study group should avoid atavism. Each can and should rely on their own agency and respect and support the agency of the other members. Let's configure the group to create the space where the personal agency of its members will flourish. For that, the object of study defining the group should be expansive and fuzzy — not, for instance, "the theme of death in Montaigne's essays," but rather "the life and work of Montaigne and the universe of its significance for us." Such a topic — let's call it a "quasi general topic" — creates a broad ground of shared inquiry that will require each to construe it meaningfully for herself.

"to construe it meaningfully"

Let's keep in mind how easy it has become to say things that we do not construe meaningfully. Let's avoid constructions that simply signify forms of public allegiance, devoid of personally considered meaning.

Our topic — The life and work of Montaigne and the universe of its significance for us — might enable diverse persons to find reasons to join in its study, but it will not be adequate, in and of itself, to define the particular, personal concern on which any one of them will concentrate. As the first contribution to the study group, each participant can and should introduce themselves to the other members, making their personal interest in the topic clear and beginning to focus that interest into an initial interests of study. Let's face it. Many of us, perhaps almost all of us, find it difficult to open up in this way in most settings, especially educational settings. Let's suck it up and get over it.

From early on, in home, in school, in work, most everywhere, we find ourselves subject to countless assessment regimes. These engender a deep spirit of distrust. Guardedness becomes engrained, a façade for every situation. We learn to work in little enclosures, hidden spaces. We can overcome all that. In actuality, each and every one gets born thoroughly ignorant, and damn stupid, too. In that, we are all peers. Let's take it from there. Culture, the actuality of what humans make of ourselves, is a commons, achievements of, for, and by all. We share and nurture that by being open about what we can and want to do. What draws us to study, in this instance, the life and work of Montaigne and the universe of its significance for us? That's the question that constitutes the study group, the question that each tries to answer recursively over time in interactions with the other members of the group.

This recursive mode of interaction over the life of the study group sets it apart from the test driven model, which drives towards a given telos, acing the test — map it out, spill it back, and move on. Let's call our groups recursive study groups, for they should nurture recursive development along distinctive paths occasioned by congenial feedback to one or more instantiations of the studying each member pursues. At this stage, we have miniscule experience with recursive groups on a place to study. Consequently, organization of preliminary trials rests largely on intuitions about how they might work informed by a sense of possibility based on experience with group study in instructional settings.

Let's start out with a small group, say 4 participants, reasonably heterogeneous in background and interests. Let's start with a short, initial period in which the participants introduce themselves to each other and rapidly survey Montaigne's life and work, each thinking about their own self-formation and liberal learning and significance that Montaigne might have for that. Let's try culminating this start with a short statement of intent, extending and deepening the initial reflections, to which the other participants should briefly respond in a sympathetic spirit. Then let's do two cycles in which each participant pursues their agenda of study

Tentative Calendar, about 10 weeks duration

Mon 01/17: Montaigne study group convenes; MSG participants introduce their interests, backgrounds, and goals.
Tue 01/18 thru Thu 01/20: Each MSG participant plans an initial study agenda through an intensive orientation in the universe of Montaigne.
Fri 01/21: MSG participants present their initial study agendas.
Fri 01/21 thru Mon 01/24: Each MSG participant responds sympathetically to the other participants' initial agendas.
Mon 01/24 thru Thu 02/10: MSG participants study according to their revised agendas, adapting them according to their best judgment.
Fri 02/11: Each MSG participant posts her reflections on her work and her ideas and their rationale for extending it.
Fri 02/11 thru Mon 02/14: Each MSG participant responds sympathetically and posts it to the self-assessments by the other participants.
Mon 02/14 thru Thu 03/10: MSG participants study according to their further agendas, developing ideas for their contributions to a study page on Montaigne.
Fri 03/11: MSG participants present a summation of their work on Montaigne and their initial ideas for a study page on him.
Sat 03/12 thru Mon 03/21MSG participants complete and post a personal account of their study and a group work to complete and post a study page for Montaigne.

A note on sources

The best translation is a well-read one, and you have four reasonable choices. If you want a print edition, you have two fine choices: The complete works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters by Michel de Montaigne (Donald M. Frame, trans., Everyman Library, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) and The complete essays by Michel de Montaigne (M. A, Scheech, trans,. New York: Penguin Books, 1993). If you already have one or the other, good — use it well. If you are going to buy one, in my opinion, the hardback Everyman edition of Donald Frame's translation, currently at $28.49 on Amazon, is slightly the better buy than the Penguin paperback of Screed's translation at $24.99. Both are fine, contemporary translations, but commentators generally use Frame as the standard in references and its quality of book production is higher.

You can get complete editions of Montaigne's Essays online for free in the widely used translation of Charles Cotton (1685), edited by William Carew Hazlitt (1877) in Our library and in Project Gutenberg and elsewhere. Cotton and then Cotton Hazlitt have been deeply embedded historically in commentary on Montaigne in English, and this translation is well-worth study. Additionally, you can find online an older translation of the Essays by John Florio in the Renascence Editions at the University of Oregon.

Our purpose is to study with Montaigne as our interlocutor and for this we can largely bypass the secondary literature. You may want a little orientation, however. For that purpose, you will find that the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Marc Foglia, substantively revised by Emiliano Ferrari, gives an excellent overview and appreciation of Montaigne's cultural significance. Even more, in 1941, Stefan Zweig wrote a short survey of Montaigne's experience and achievements, Montaigne (London: Pushkin Press, 2015), to celebrate the importance of his humanistic sensibility for Western culture at a time of immanent danger to it. And there's been lots and lots written about Montaigne, and now we can say that the newest is the best: Montaigne: A Life by the French authority, Philippe Desan, originally published in French in 2014 and quickly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

A note on reading

Our agendas of study will draw from these and other resources, but the actual substance of the study each of us undertakes draws on all our life experience as that motivates and constrains our reading, reflection, and writing. In contemporary intellectual life, we suffer from a viscous circle between reading and writing, short-circuiting its ground in our experience. Scholars, journalists, and literary figures generate a vast over-production of writing. We speed through it; we all read far too superficially, grabbing this meme and that buzzword much too quickly, without integrating it into our inner lifeworld. Instead it becomes an "approach," something short of a coherent set of ideas, and eagerly we turn the approach into vacuous grist for the writerly mills. And back and forth, it gets worse and worse. Can we break the cycle?

Let's try here to occasion slower, more thoughtful reading with a tighter relation between writer and reader. In studying, we do not need to cover a set syllabus. . . .

Many of us have been schooled to avoid first-person expressions in our writing. Disemboweled discourse seems so much more objective! But in studying we pursue a first-person endeavor, thinking consciously and with our deeper powers. And to actualize our efforts, we communicate what we have to say to ourselves and others. That's how study becomes shared reciprocally, a fully human activity of persons interacting with one another. To pretend the I and the we are not involved dehumanizes thinking into objective knowledge, impersonal thought stripped of its thinkers.

Montaigne's charm, his power, his presence after 450 years, arises from his mastery of the first-person essay. The very term, essay — an attempt, an assay, a testing — entails the active agent as its author. Let's write that way in responding to Montaigne and to each other.

But, we wonder. Can we make just what "that way" means more vividly clear? We easily use the first-person, singular or plural. We can talk about attempts — "Yesterday, I tried a new way home from work and got into bad traffic," but that doesn't hack it. It is not the fact of having gotten into bad traffic, but what we think and feel and want to do in reflection on our experience of bad traffic that we write about to communicate to others.

"Bad traffic" may be a bit more mundane than most of the things that occasioned Montaigne's reflections. But Montaigne anchored his reflections with facts of common experience, and he communicated to readers what he felt and thought in reflection on them and what he learned about himself in reflecting on those reflections. To join him, to enter into the cycles of reflection, we need to consider facts of experience in our lives analogous to those that triggered Montaigne's writing.

Biographically, Montaigne wrote the bulk of his essays between 1570 and 1580, starting at the age of 38. Prior to that, he had been an up-and-coming politico in the city of Bordeaux and the surrounding areas, hotspots of life-threatening interaction between French Protestants and Catholics, a high-stakes, transactional situation. Montaigne withdrew to read, reflect, and write in his study, the top-floor of a squat tower adjacent to the Château de Montaigne, seat of a small seigneurie acquired by Montaigne's great-grand-father, some 60 kilometers from Bordeaux.

. . . .

Jacques Barzun on conversation

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