The glory and sorrow of the autodidact

I had an undergraduate professor who was a great devotee of William Faulkner, an author that never really clicked for me.  I admired that professor, though, and for her sake I repeatedly tried to get into him, but it never took.  I recall reading somewhere that Faulkner's unique voice and style might not have developed had he been less isolated from the literary winds of the 20s and 30s.  Apparently he did once make the writer's pilgrimage to Manhattan, but after a few months clerking in a bookstore he went home to Oxford, Mississippi, and wrote his way to a Nobel Prize.

In truth, Faulkner was probably never as removed from the larger literary scene as the legend would have it, so his reputation as an exotic self-creation is maybe a little overblown.  Still, there remains an allure to the idea of the solitary genius or autodidact.  There's an assumption that by doing it alone, you are better positioned to hit upon something fresh and wonderful.  I find this idea attractive, but I also suspect it's just fuzzball romanticism.

Learning is unavoidably social.  You're just going to knap better spear points if there's someone else around your Stone Age campfire doing it too.

Last night we had a beer-tie at my local Trout Unlimited chapter meeting.  Just a bunch of guys sitting around tying flies, drinking beer and swapping information.  Now I've been tying for three or four years and fly fishing for a decade, but I'm almost entirely self-taught.  I'll admit that I take some pride in this.  The things I know I really know because they come from hard-won experience and a hell of a lot of wince-inducing mistakes.

That said, the gaps in my knowledge are equally wince inducing, not unlike the character Vardaman in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (he bores air holes in his mother's coffin because no one in his family has bothered to explain to him the concept of death).  I mean, that's me.  My mother is a fish.  I have only a very crude ability to read water, my double-haul is pathetic and don't ask me anything about which hatches come off when or at what times of the year.  Haven't got the faintest.

But I'm keen to learn, I'm hungry.  So it was great to just sit next to a guy who knew what he was doing last night.   He walked me through his fly box and I asked him dozens of questions.  What struck me was how amazingly generous and patient people can be with their knowledge when they sense someone shares their passion.

Ironically I had just advised two of my students earlier in the day that they ought to get together and form a study group for their microbiology class.  Both are nervous about the course, which has something of a reputation at my institution for generating a steady supply of ex-Nursing majors.  "Look," I told them, "studying with someone else is a bit like working out with a buddy at the gym.  You may not want to go, but you also don't want to let the other guy down."

Several years ago someone at a teaching conference told a story that has always stuck with me (I should try to track it down but never have).  Seems a math prof out in California was teaching a huge section of over a hundred students. I'm not sure what the class was.  Maybe calculus or something. Anyway the prof got to looking at the failure rate of various kinds of students and noticed that African American kids were failing at a much higher rate.  The professor wanted to know why, so he did a little research.

His first hunch was that this subset of students may not have been as well prepared, but that idea didn't pan out.  When he looked into it, he found they had the same level of preparation.   Indeed, you didn't get into this university if you weren't prepared.  So he looked at other factors: were the African American students working more hours at a job?  No, that wasn't it.  Were they taking more classes?  No.  In the end he just decided to interview different groups of students and ask them how they were studying.

He discovered that most of the students had formed study groups because they realized they couldn't succeed in any other way.  For some reason, however, the African American kids thought study groups were cheating.  They were busting their hump trying to pass a tough course on their own, which accounted for the high failure rate.

So the prof switched his teaching style.  He would demonstrate how to solve a problem and then present the class with a similar problem that each student had to work alone.  Once they had a solution, he formed his huge 100-plus section into groups of four students apiece and he told them the group could only have one answer.  If there was a disagreement, they had to hash it out until everyone agreed.  In effect, he created study groups inside his classroom and had the students teaching each other.  The results were dramatic and quick. The failure rate for all groups dropped significantly.

                                                                                * * *

Last spring I was fishing a little stream in Northeast Iowa and a kid pulled up and asked me if I minded if he watched me a while. He was a young guy, about 20 or so.  I fished and we talked.  He had recently bought a fly rod, but he didn't know what he was doing.  I told him I didn't know much either but I could show him a basic overhead cast, a roll cast and a few tips for keeping drag off his line.  I let him cast my rod for about 20 minutes and gave him a few flies.  He was all excited and kept thanking me over and over.  I just kept telling him that I was no expert, which is just what the guy kept telling me last night as I asked him about this-and-that in his fly box.

You find two people with a common interest. Then add in some curiosity and a little generosity.  Do this and the learning will take care of itself.

(Although maybe not always with Faulkner.)


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