Sunday, May 4, 2014

Thinking about Thinking

Tomorrow is my final class discussing Thomas Sterner's The Practicing Mind with my ENG 100 students. In one of the later chapters, Sterner argues that one can become more "objectively aware" of oneself by distancing the "true self" from the Ego. Sterner calls this "true self" the Observer. A key feature of the Observer is that she does not react emotionally to what she observes.

I agree with some of the general principles he is getting at with this theory: we should avoid harsh self-judgments while trying to learn new skills; it's helpful to put our "failures" in perspective by seeing them as mere bumps on the road of our evolving practice; our ego-driven impulses to achieve our goals as quickly as possible can be self-defeating. However, the Observer/Ego distinction also raises some questions. Why is the Observer a "truer" self than the Ego? Why is emotion necessarily bad for the "practicing mind"? What is the difference between being "self-aware" (which Sterner values) and being "self-conscious" (which he warns against)?

I don't have simple answers to these questions for my students, but I hope they are open to thinking about them. I believe that a worthwhile education necessarily means changing how one thinks--and thinking about how you think is a good place to start.

I guess that's who the Observer is--the part of us who thinks about how we think, the metacognitive agent. But I think the Ego is no less a true part of us. In fact, the idea that we can observe ourselves totally dispassionately and objectively seems kind of bogus. Our self-observations are always filtered through some set of beliefs, even if they're not geared towards judgment.

The trick, I believe, is to find a balance between a total lack of self-awareness and intense, paralyzing self-criticism. If you're unaware of your own flaws, then you're not going to change them. But if you're completely resigned to them--if you believe they are stamped upon your very identity--then you're also not going to change them, because you believe them to be unchangeable. Self-criticism can be good, but it needs to be balanced with underlying self-confidence and patience. You need to see the things about yourself that you want to change, but you also need to be patient with yourself as you move through the slow process of evolving.

When it comes to writing, too many students convince themselves that they are genetically bad writers--incapable of improvement. This is never true, but thinking it makes it true. Even more tragic is a student who thinks he is a bad thinker. Such a student doesn't believe his thoughts deserve to be put into writing, or even vocalized during class. Self-judgment has walled him off. He is at an educational institution, but he has convinced himself he cannot be educated. He is hoping to squeak through, unnoticed, but he secretly expects to fail.

How do good teachers reach such students? How do we teach them to listen to their own thoughts with generosity and patience? How do we get them to believe that transformative change is possible if one keeps practicing and trusts the process?

As the end of the semester approaches, I think about how proud I am of the students who pushed through all their struggles and self-doubt and persevered. But I also think about all those who found themselves overwhelmed by obstacles, by assignments, by life, by the shortage of hours in a day. I hope they try again. I hope to see them in the Fall.

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