Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Reassessing disengagement--or, how to manufacture eureka moments

I could have yelled “Eureka!” on my walk this morning and no one would have heard it except the indigo bunting singing in the top of a willow. What does he care about my writing problems? He’s a bird. Birds don’t spend their summers agonizing over academic essays.

This is what I’ve been doing since I gave my paper at the ASLE conference last month: agonizing over how to patch a glaring hole in my argument. As I was revising my conference paper to fit the time available, I hesitated over a particular point that seems, to me, fairly brilliant, but it did not fit well with the focus of my paper. I hated to cut such a cool point, but on the other hand, I couldn’t possibly explain it thoroughly without cutting something more central to my argument. So I crossed it out.

But it’s been nagging at me ever since: as I expand my conference paper into a journal article, how do I deal with that dangling insight? It’s too interesting to bury in an endnote, but how do I make it feed my central argument? Three weeks of diligent thought have not solved the problem, but 20 minutes into my walk this morning, I had the answer.

How does this work? I was just walking up the road watching goldfinches flee from one Queen Anne’s Lace blossom to the next when eureka! There it was: I knew how to incorporate that important point into my argument, where to suture it smoothly into the essay, what examples to use in developing the idea, and even how to connect it back to the opening paragraph and lead into a great conclusion. And (this is the best part!) I came up with a new title, just two little words that tie all the parts together and ought to grab hold of readers' eyeballs really nicely. I couldn't wait to get back home so I could write it all down.

As I'm preparing to teach our senior capstone class this fall, I wonder how to explain to students the essential ingredients of the academic writing process. Reading widely, yes; research, yes; really outstanding note-taking skills, absolutely. But sometimes it's important to just close the books, put down the notes, and disengage entirely from the process, to let the mind wander randomly without direction and see what it picks up along the way. How do I include mind-wandering as a requirement on the syllabus? How would I assess student disengagement? When I encourage students to make time to walk away from the project and let their minds wander, will they roll their eyes at me and turn up the volume on their earbuds while tweeting thousands of followers about the latest lunacy proposed by their English professor? 

I know what it takes to produce eureka moments in my life: a mind stocked with interesting ideas; a disciplined approach to bringing those ideas together in writing; and a regular time to disengage from the process entirely and let my mind wander. What I don't know, however, is whether that formula will work for my students or how to help them discover their own methods. I want to create the conditions that will multiply their eureka moments--but unless I'm there to hear the eureka, how will I even know how it works?      


Contingent Cassandra said...

The real trick, I fear, is going to be getting them to go for a walk -- or do anything else that would leave room for the mind to wander -- without taking along a source of distraction (cell phone, music player, etc.). I suspect some people can still let their minds wander with music on, but I'm pretty sure few can do so while monitoring texts, twitter, snapchat, et al. Maybe if they had something else to occupy their hands -- e.g. a basketball or bike handlebars?

I certainly got my best ideas for papers in college when I worked for a while, then went out (alone, without distracting devices) for ice cream. And there's pretty good research indicating that walking is good for creativity (and that many people who make a living out of being creative -- e.g. successful writers -- spend a lot more of the day walking or engaged in physical labor than most people's vision of a hard-working, productive person would include.

Bev said...

Yes, and it's not just the students. At our academic writing boot camp this summer, I encouraged participants to get unplugged from everything for at least 30 minutes per day, and for some, that seemed like an impossible demand.