Thinking about Thinking

When this picture was taken, I was actually thinking about trees. Photo credit: D.J. King, (who does some wonderful portraits and lives in Calgary, if you happen to need such a thing.)

You might not be surprised to hear that I’m big on metacognition. It’s one of my things. It might actually be my thing.

I have struggled with this, because in the academic world I was brought up in, one does not become an expert in process, one becomes an expert in object. The topics in most courses are existing thoughts and models of the world, not where those came from or what to do with them. When we write papers, we are expected to summarize the results of our thought processes, not to expose the thought processes themselves. (This mistake tends to lead to such comments on undergrad papers as, “rambling and incoherent.” This may be true. It might alternatively be, “circuitous and experimental.” One is bad writing, the other art. Avant garde or confused? Sometimes only time will tell. Although usually? It’s just bad writing.)

When I was studying physics, I was interested in the experimental methods, not the outcomes of the experiment. I fear that I didn’t care about the crystal structures of halogenated methanes, although the idea that you could use particular methods on particular materials intrigued me. I liked preparing samples, running experiments, figuring out what experiment might work next… but the main body of the work was in analyzing the data, sitting in front of a computer doing the same thing again, and again, and again.

When I was studying education, I was interested in what claims could be made and how to support them. I like teaching. No, I love teaching. I live for the moment that the eyes light up! But I don’t just want to teach the things I already learned. I want to teach people how to learn. Why are doing this? What’s the point?

When I was working with faculty members to develop their courses, I was interested in (and tasked with) the structure, not the content. I designed a course about designing courses. I’m all about the framework.

Until very, very recently, I have considered this a flaw. A failure in my character. An inability to commit to one line of investigation and see it thought to its conclusion. Occasionally, I have despaired. OK. Frequently, I have despaired. I am a generalist, I have said, in a world that rewards specialization. But it’s not quite true. I have been telling myself a false story, one which is attached to a model of The University as The Place where thinkers go. If I can’t find a place there, I can’t be a thinker. More recently, The Media has supplanted The University. If only I could get something published, if only somebody in a place of judgement would deem my thoughts, my writing, my self worthy, my existence would be justified. It would be OK to be a generalist. I would have value in the world.

So here’s a different story for me to consider: I am an expert in metacognition. What have I done for 10,000 hours? I have investigated my own thought processes, the nature of thought, the support of truth claims, the structure of disciplinary knowledge, the construction of coherent models, and the ways in which teachers and students communicate their models to one another. I have constructed and torn down so many possible ways of knowing inside my own head that it’s a constant renovation project. I have thought deeply about thinking. I have been reluctant to make these claims, because they are the landscape of the philosopher, the professor, the specialist in the discipline. I tend to believe that I’m not entitled to form a critique of something until I have succeeded at it, and my strongest critique is of the structures in the education system, particularly the post-secondary education system. And then I think, “Well, maybe I’m just bitter?” I ponder, construct, deconstruct, consider, philosophize… and come back again and again and again to, “People are going to say that I’m just bitter because I couldn’t make it as an academic.”

I still love the university! It has libraries, and theatres, and people to talk to, and frankly, it pays the bills. (“Many of my dearest friends are professors,” she protested feebly.) But honestly? There’s some truth there. I’m a little bitter. I’m a little frustrated that I have never found my path, that I’ve never had a full time permanent job, that I have become an expert in something that everybody says is so valued in our society, but that I can’t seem to find a way of turning it into gainful employment other than by trimming off the majority of the skill and finding a market for the portion that is left. I happen to think that it is wasteful to have me working at a job that only requires a high school diploma. I find myself apologizing for my education, which is both too much and inadequate, depending on where I stand.

Well, no more, I say! I’m thinking about thinking, and I’m proud! My next two posts are going to be titled, “I see your Levinas and raise you a Wittgenstein” (which is about internet comments and the limits of knowledge. I promise it requires no knowledge of either Levinas or Wittgenstein.) and “Why are we here, anyway?” (which is, tangentially, also about internet comments). There will also be, as time goes on, “Writing about Writing”.

All of which is an elaborate precursor to saying that I’m back, and that I’m in transition to taking my own writing seriously as a tool of engagement with the world. I’m willing to be subjective because I’m a subject! I have a position. And part of my position is that we generalists need to find a different way of being in the world, one that doesn’t require us to leave behind, immerse, drown, or amputate parts of our selves. When we judge ourselves by the same standards by which we are judged, those of the specialist and the expert, of course we are found wanting. We can’t change that part of the world, but we don’t have to subject ourselves to it. (See what I did there? Subject/subject. Noun/verb. Actor/acted upon? Oooh! I love when words do that.)

And then we need to find new ways of making a living. Because waiting for the path to appear? That way madness lies.

(I know. I’ve thought about it.)

9 responses to “Thinking about Thinking”

  1. Interesting post. As a self-educated expert in metacognition, do you have strategies for changing your own mind to be more outcome-focused? What is the proper balance between a process-focus and outcome-focus? For me, I’m always trying to maximize the amount of time I spend “sharpening the saw” and how much time I spend cutting down trees… I wish I had the magic formula 🙂

    • Those are interesting questions. I certainly find myself shifting back and forth between process and outcomes; you might not guess it from much of my writing, but I tend to test on the Goal-Oriented end of the spectrum. I’m deeply practical.

      One thing I’d like to clear up: I’m not entirely self-educated. I had the opportunity to do a B.Ed., and one of the key ideas in the program was that of “praxis”, the continual reflection on the implications of theory on your practice. We also were required to keep a journal as we went through the program, and use it as a source material for an analysis at the end. I also have spent several years practicing yoga and meditation, both of which have a significant emphasis on what one of my yoga instructors called, “watching the watcher” in your own head. And one of the things that the watcher has been saying for a long time is this: you’re not living up to your potential. I can justify it in all kinds of ways, but when I’m brutally honest, I have to accept that it is true. I am not accomplishing the kinds of things that my peers have done with their lives. And *that* is the kind of realization that pushes me to get things done. I’m pleased with where I am inside my own head, but I don’t feel that I’m doing enough to get it out into the world… I am failing to ship the goods, as it were.

      That was the whole point of starting this blog, as it happens. It was a challenge to myself to slap the “good enough” label on things and set them out into the world to make their ways. There was this constant vague nagging at the back of my mind… “And when exactly do you think it *will* be good enough?” Blogging has been fabulous for that. I can put things in the world that are not perfect, other people can read them, and I can NOT DIE. This is an awesome realization. I continue to exist even when my imperfections are exposed in a public location. Very liberating.

      Does that help? Does it even answer the question?

  2. […] dear friend is writing about meta-cognition, about thinking about thinking, or so the title of her latest post says. My first instinct when I browsed the title (and then took the long subway ride home without […]

  3. I’m looking forward to your upcoming posts!

    I too was very drawn to the metacognitive parts of psychology and philosophy in University, and I love watching my kids learn things as we homeschool. I’m not getting paid to do what I do either. At least I’m enjoying it…

  4. Yay, xox!

    Random comments:

    I want to teach people how to learn.
    Goodness, that would be an achievement! Why isn’t more attention paid to that in the education world? But here in the U.S., it’s all about meeting grade-level standards. So stupid.

    Levinas? Never heard of him/her. Wittgenstein? Never read him. Or maybe I did, in grad school? Hm, not sure.

    As for me, I am greatly concerned about the sloppiness of my thinking. We saw The Constant Gardener last night, and I hated its Romeo-and-Juliet conclusion. I hate hate hate this fantasy that romantic love is the essence of life. Can I explain why? No. “I think it has something to do with feminism,” I told my husband, but I couldn’t say what. My fantasy is that if I had gotten a PhD and become a professor, my thoughts wouldn’t be a blur. Ah, fantasy.

    • I’d never heard of Levinas until I encountered him used in an “I’m so much smarter than you that I don’t even need to refute your original argument” variety of comment on an internet article. Which made me realize that the comments on academic articles are frequently just as nasty as those in more “normal” fora, they just are cloaked in more sophisticated language. To tip my hand.

      I don’t think that you have to draw on feminist theory to recognize that romantic love as the be-all and end-all of life is a disabling myth. If you want some reassurance that your thoughts would still be a blur, I can recommend the book I just read to kick-start my thesis: “Writing for Social Scientists” by Howard S. Becker. Enlightening chapter contributed by one of his correspondents regarding writer’s block, perfectionism, and fear in the young academic.