Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Compliments and Creativity (and Analysis and Social Skills)

After an extended writing hiatus, boyfriend and I have decided to supplement our semi-long distance communication this summer with writing prompts. After all, we both have authorly aspirations. If we write for 3 hours a day for the next 10 years, we might actually get somewhere (I don't have time to write for 3 hours a day, but I'm guessing I've written a fair amount in the last two decades of my life--after I figured out how to write, I mean). I won't necessariliy be following the prompt directly. The goal is to get us to write more, even if we just end up sitting at the computer for an hour a day (in my case, I'll be reading articles).

Writing prompt: List positive messages you have received about your writing or other creative pursuits. What memories do you have of feeling satisfied or pleased with how a piece of writing came out?

In reverse chronological order:
"Your writing, it flows like water."
"You are an excellent writer."
"You're really articulate."
"You are very smart."
"You received almost no negative comments in your evaluations, which is unusual for a new tutor."
"You used to be really crative."

Well, that was a short list, and I'm not sure if tutoring is a creative pursuit. Nevertheless, I will try and go through them.

"Your writing, it flows like water." and "You are an excellent writer."The first comment comes from one of my best friends, the second from my special education professor on a paper I wrote for class. Number of drafts? 1. If I can get started on a topic, words pretty much do flow out like water, sometimes superfluously. The second comment was not necessarily surprising (as an English major, I did my share of writing essays, and invariably got good grades), but it was ego-enhancing in its emphatic nature. Ultimately though, these compliments are non-constructive. I know my writing flows (most of the time). I know I'm a good writer. Other than simultaneously smoothing my ego (like you smooth a cat's fur) and making me uncomfortable*, they don't serve much purpose.

*I suppose my hesitancy to accept compliments graciously comes from my Chinese background. I was told recently in class that the default answer to any compliment is "nali, nali," which basically means, "that's not true" or "you're exaggerating." This is the default answer even when it's hard to argue with the compliment, such as "you are tall." Technically it's an opinion, but it's hard to argue with someone four inches shorter than you. I guess you're supposed to say stuff life, "I'm average for an American," or, "I have friends even taller than I am!"

I don't remember much constructive criticism from college either. It was more like, "You could have done better on this and this and that, but overall good job!" Maybe I don't remember the comments because they were either telling me things I already knew (yeah, but I didn't know how to fix it) or because I knew my writing, how it worked, and how to produce it. The process mostly got me As, so why change it?

What memories do you have of feeling satisfied or pleased with how a piece of writing came out?

Because the best paper I ever wrote did not come from the default process of start-the-paper-the-night-before-it's-due-and-work-on-it-all-night, but from a thorough rereading of the book (The Bell Jar) where I took note of all the parts which would later form my concrete detail. I didn't even have a clear thesis, I was rereading the book to form my thesis, and when it came it seemed to coalesce organically. Granted, though I started writing this paper a bit earlier than the others (maybe two days before it was due), a lot of the work came from before I even started free-typing, when I was bookmarking passages. This is why I like to tell my students that 80% of the work of the paper is coming up with a (good) thesis.

"You're really articulate." and "You are very smart."
Both of these stem from my Asian-American literature class. A class I was actually effortlessly interested in. The first was from a classmate (I was honestly and graciously able to say, "Oh, so are you" in return) and from my professor, who was encouraging me to go to graduate school.

The Secret Life of Pronouns talks about how students who write with an analytical style tend to get better grades in college. It's uncertain whether this is because analytical people are smarter or because American universities prefer analytical skills. Probably the latter. Sir Ken Robinson talks about how schools emphasize analysis (along with memorization), but not creativity/divergent thinking. Hey, why analyze things when you could be creating new things? Lastly, in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talked about a genius who couldn't graduate from college. He had analytical skills up the wazoo, but he didn't have the requisite social skills.

I'm perhaps overly analytical. My boyfriend says I analyze everything, but can't observe what's in front of me. This is true. When we're walking around, instead of paying attention to where I'm going for future reference (luckily my following skills are well-honed), I'm asking my boyfriend if his gay friend who sometimes talks in a "fem-y" way started talking that way before or after he discovered he was gay and joined the gay community, because if so then maybe it was more of a product of social transference rather than an inherent genetic trait. His response was, "I don't know. I wasn't paying attention. I guess I should have been, but I didn't know that in the future I would be with someone who analyzes everything."

In conclusion, being analytical isn't everything, although it does get me compliments and was probably a key factor in getting good grades for my English papers. After all, English majors don't usually write their own literature; they just analyze the bejezus out of existing literature. (Although I do believe you should be able to read well before you can write well.)

"You received almost no negative comments, which is unusual for a new tutor."
I was a pretty damn good tutor. When I first started teaching, I lamented that my tutoring skills apparently did not apply at all to my teaching skills, but in a way they did. Skills tutors need are listening skills, questioning skills, and the patience to let the tutee figure out what he or she thinks oneself. Though lecture skills, lesson-planning skills, and classroom management are essential for a teacher, tutor skills are what I believe really foster critical thinking (if you can somehow squeeze it into a class of 25+ students).

I am not a socially skilled person. I used to say I was socially retarded. Now I say I'm borderline Asperger's (or on the spectrum, as my boyfriend likes to say). Also, I am highly introverted. After reading Susan Cain's introvert manifesto Quiet, I'm more accepting of myself, and am glad to know that there are others out there who need time to themselves (because they get overwhelmed by too much socializing) and don't like small talk. I guess introverts are kind of Aspergey.

Introverts are branded as shy and, let's face it, socially unskilled. The socially skilled introverts are the ones who can (and are willing to) fake it. I was always told I was quiet as a child, but only my child-disliking grandmother who lived in Taiwan liked me for it.

However, Susan Cain's arguement is that introverts are skilled at certain tasks. They tend to be more thoughtful (they spend time by themselves thinking), are more detail-oriented (on the things they pay attention to), tend to be more conscientious, and are better listeners. I kind of think of teaching as an extrovert's job. One has to be more or less constantly interacting with a large group of people; favorite teachers tend to be ones who can be funny and "perform" for their class. Tutoring taps into more introvert skills. Those skills seem to be coming into vogue now that there is more emphasis on guides on the sides instead of sages on stages and student-centered, constructivist teaching. (Ironically, introvert students like sage-on-stage, lecture-type teaching, probably because the focus is not on them.)

I guess my point is that I am socially skilled in certain contexts, such as tutoring. And in traditional Asian communities.

My other point is that the introvert way of brainstorming seems to be more effective. A new yorker article denouncing groupthink argued that better and more bountiful ideas came when people first brainstormed alone. This makes sense to me, although perhaps it's introverts who brainstorm best alone, while extroverts may like the competition (even though it's not supposed to be a competition) of groupthink. Let's move on to creativity then.

"You used to be really creative."
Said my sister, lamenting my lost creativity the way my mother laments how my academic success peaked in middle school (I got Bs in high school). I guess Ken Robinson is onto something. When I was younger and my homework was scanty, before the age of the internet, I spent a lot of time with my sister building forts, planning impromptu luaus, starting plays, and even choreographing a dance celebrating the Fourth of July (Happy Birthday, U.S.A.). Then I started going to sleep after midnight because of homework and procrastination.

Actually, I think procrastination is very important to creativity. When I have nothing to do, I do nothing. When I have a ton of stuff to do, such as clean my apartment, I decide to make homemade mayonnaise, homemade yogurt, and clothes made out of old sheets (sorry boyfriend). Of course if I get too busy (with actual deadlines), then I buckle down and do only work. Just as a recent article in Salon talked about how coffee houses are great for creativity because of a moderate amount of noise (whether or not that amount of noise corresponds to the music coming out of my ipod remains to be discovered), I believe a moderate amount of business is essential to productivity, even creative productivity. If I have nothing to do, I want to do nothing. I may be restless, but my yearnings for activity are vague and inchoate. Give me something to do, and that inchoatness quickly takes shape. Give me something to do and limitations on my movement and I can find even more ways to waste my time.

There are two factors to creativity. First: having time and space to yourself. Second: why is everyone hating on Starbuck's green tea with red bean drink? It's not appealing to me either, but it's a fairly traditional and very popular flavor combination in Taiwan, so Starbucks is not being stupid; it's catering to the local population. In other words, random interactions with other people or ideas, especially if the differ from your own. That's why in Pixar (and many other companies now as well), you have your own desk, but you can wander off to play fuseball or ping pong or get coffee. Of course, I hate water-cooler talk, and don't like people wandering into my classroom to talk about the weather, but a 30-second interaction can get you off track enough to gain a new perspective (not that this is useful if you're just collating data, which is a big part of teaching).

Now I'm going to go off topic and talk about Google (and it wasn't even Google who really started it) and 20% time. I did a final project for one of my educational classes where I designed a school where students and teachers had 20% time (Fridays were devoted to whatever they wanted to work on). It seemed like a good compromise between the need for some factory-type structures and unschooling. Another article in the Salon wants to bring back the 40 hour work week, because overtime doesn't really increase productivity (I mean, you produce more, but at a far less efficient rate). For intellectual jobs, supposedly the sweet spot of productivity is even lower than 40 hours a week.

All of this seems like it would keep workers happy, healthy, wealthy (or at least employed), and wise--especially in terms of creativity.

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