August 11, 2023
Thanks to James Robertson, HMU student, for today’s post
Learning with Harrison Middleton University offers a number of advantages over more familiar approaches, and prominent among them is freedom, freedom to study at one’s own pace, and in one’s own way. This can be a pleasure, but it is a responsibility. Working with a sense of these twin poles, of freedom and responsibility, has, in my case, evolved a personal method. I share this here, not as a guide, but as a record of experiences.
Some years ago, my sister bought me a Kindle. I read with it every day, and enjoyed playing with the experimental features. After a time I discovered that it could read books to me while I walked beside the river at night. I tend to walk fast, and I found that the faster I moved, the faster I could play, and enjoy, the book. I had stumbled on a surprising connection between the rhythm of my body, and that of my mind, at least in its receptive phase.
This is how I first experienced several of the books that I later came to study when I began my program with Harrison Middleton, and much of my memory of places I have lived is a fabric woven of texts and city streets. For reasons I can only imagine, when I listen to books in this way, they tend to stay with me even more firmly than when I read the printed word, and I admit this with some sadness, for I can lose hours in a good bookshop, and incant their names with pleasure – Kyobo, Kinokuniya, Dymocks and Foyles.
So, for the record, on commencing my studies, this was, and remains, my first step – to collect my readings, and find a way to turn them into listenings. I listen to as much of a given work as I can, because although my studies concentrate on curated slices of various books, I like to have context to inform my interpretation of those slices. Listening is very good for building this context.
With that said, for the purpose of study, this is only preparatory. Perhaps the biggest hazard involved in any work of interpretation is projection. It is awfully easy to reach into a book and pull out clumps of one’s fancy. I’ve found two good defences against this. One is, as mentioned, to build context. The other is close attention to the specific words on the page. This, I think, can only come by way of actual eyes-to-letters reading. Now I will take words in any form – on paper, on a Kindle, a tablet, my laptop… I was made for walking, and when insomnia strikes, I’ll sometimes welcome the opportunity to gently amble back and forth in the living room, tablet in hand.
The tablet is particularly useful for study, since with reading, comes note-taking. Having taught writing, I’m aware of a few note-taking techniques, and at the start of my studies I experimented with a few, the most rigorous of which was to construct a synthesis matrix. Soon, though, I began to evolve my own technique. For some odd reason I think of it as “quote storming,” but perhaps it’s better understood as reading as if conducting an interview. One asks the writer questions such as “what do you really mean?” “What are you getting at?” Or perhaps “what would you say to this?” Thankfully, they will usually answer. I look for quotes, for lines where an author gives the most succinct or striking expression to their ideas. Of course, there’s no fixed standard. Going from Kant to Mill to Nietzsche might give a sense of vertigo. But with flexibility, focus, and context, there is always something.
At some point in a course, I will have a series of quotes in a file in the cloud, so I can work on it at my computer and tablet or, as a last resort, my phone. This is still only a beginning. We are here for the Great Conversation, and what I need is for these authors to talk to each other, but they need a little help. I look for their commitments, for their values and presuppositions, for what they protect and avoid. In this way I try to tease out the implicit conversation, the possibilities of conflict, of denial, admission, and reconciliation.
That is one, fairly reliable, way to generate a discussion question for an assignment, and to find the bones of an essay. I might call it the constructive, or analytical, procedure. I like it, and I stick with it. However, it has always functioned in partnership with what I might call the intuitive procedure, which is the same thing, but it starts elsewhere. Often, on reading or listening to a book, but more often it occurs, as Weber describes, in those slack spaces when one has dropped the effort of study, and has turned to some pleasant activity. When taking a walk, or driving, or playing a game, an idea wanders in. One might be able to trace it to a definite source, but regardless, it wasn’t in mind, and now it is, leaning on one’s attention. It might be inspiration, and it might be exciting nonsense. The only way to be sure is to bring it to the texts, put it to the authors, write it out of the mind and onto the page, and see if it lives.
This question of life is the real purpose. Those who wrote the Great Books are no longer here, but their words are. And yet, as Socrates notes in Phaedrus, there is an immense distance between the inked word on the page, and the living word in the soul. The entire point of reading is to nurture new thoughts in living minds. If one reads well, then at some point, the Great Conversation becomes, not an abstract field of study, but an experience.
As I said at the beginning, this is not a guide, it is a record. I imagine that everyone involved in studies such as these has evolved their own methods. Perhaps the best I can hope from writing this is to encourage discussion, and that, I think, is why we are here.
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