By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty
I approach all learning this way. The rest of life is rather messy, but classroom learning moves at the pace I want it to, in the direction I want it to, for at least the first ten minutes. Thus, in those first ten minutes, I essentially describe the only thing I believe to be absolutely true about learning.
Theory-Process-Product embodies all.
Theory—all we know about a thing, which may not be much: the combination of experience, however flawed, and abstract understanding, the concepts, the ephemeral (and consequently perfect) ideas associated with any discipline or action. Theory remains intangible, and misleadingly simplistic.
No problem, in theory. The complexities do not arise until you have to do it.
Cue Process (practice, if you like). The doing. Entering into the thing itself: excruciating. Freakishly difficult considering that in theory this (whatever it is) shouldn’t be that tough. In actuality, when practice happens, where process occurs, chaotic. We muddle through practice. The process of doing something becomes complicated by a thousand unknown factors, and we just have to do our best. I recently told my sister I was just pretending to get by, something adults feel alarmingly often. In response, she said something truly smart, “Pretending is good because you are practicing something good.” Herein lays reassurance, and a lovely echo of Kurt Vonnegut’s reminder that “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” It might all be a convincing forgery.
Nevertheless, we should endeavor to enjoy the process itself. The joy of doing transforms practice into something else entirely. People in the midst of something they do well, musicians, athletes, thinkers, are marvelous to watch; they are in a state that has been described as “flow.” However, it takes years of practice, totaling 10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, before the gates to flow open. A child pounding away at a piano cannot imagine hours in the future when a beautiful escape will be available through 88 keys. See the historical example of Henry Adams “at past 50 solemnly and painfully learned to ride a bicycle.” In “Plug in to Your Hard-wired Happiness,” speaker Srikumar Rao wisely reminds us to invest in the process. Pursuits we approach with confidence are naturally more enjoyable, but bravely trying something for the first time—rousing ourselves, surprising ourselves with what we can achieve—extraordinary.
Product—the outcome of process. The thing created: the artifact, the result, whether temporary or permanent. This, combined with the extent to which our process succeeded or failed is what we have as tangible evidence of our efforts. I warn my students that quite often product is distressingly bad. I ask them how often they have been “armchair quarterbacks” yelling at the TV screen because of a missed play. Even with advanced theory and rigorous practice, sometimes things just don’t turn as planned, professional quarterbacks are frequently intercepted (ah-hem, Cutler). Just as the earliest definition of essay came from the French “to try,” after having written something imperfect (always), I have at least created something where once there was nothing, and I have learned something new; knowledge I pack up and take back to theory. Knowing only a fraction more than I did before, I return to the start and begin again.
Many things, much more complicated than riding a bicycle still elude me. It is always helpful to imagine that having done anything at all is a success, as it reveals a new path to follow, according to James Joyce’s definition, “mistakes are our portals of discovery.” We make our feeble attempts. We enter into the fray, we make our way.
Such is the cyclical, unending, reassuring, infuriating nature of how little we can know, and the importance of practice, and the necessity of accepting even our meager results.