I recently had two experiences on consecutive days that left very different impressions on me. The first was a sparkling conversation with a colleague (John Higgins) over tea in a Brighton café. During and after our talk, I kept glimpsing possibilities for future collaboration and conversation. And we parted having agreed that we would organise an informal ‘café-style’ gathering in Brighton in the summer, focused on ‘speaking truth to power’ (John’s research subject).
The second experience was a seminar for first-year undergraduates that I re-ran recently (as a ‘guest lecturer’) on essay writing. It went pretty smoothly as far as I could tell, but I couldn’t help noticing that it didn’t leave me buzzing like the café conversation just described. And it wasn’t just the bizarre setting: a cramped square room at the university, full of long grey tables covered by computers (known appropriately as ‘the workstation room’). Several other factors contributed to my slight sense of dissatisfaction. To give you a few clues, I’ll describe briefly what happened.
Before the seminar I had spent a considerable amount of time and thought on preparation; not so much what I was going to tell the students, but what activities I could offer them and which questions might stimulate their thinking.
At the appointed time for the seminar (11am), only one student was in the room; the others arrived in dribs and drabs. So I waited about 15 minutes before beginning, by which time about a dozen had turned up (out of some 20 on the course). As I began to talk to them about writing (a subject I can talk about enthusiastically), some looked alert, others gave the impression they hadn’t slept enough. When I posed questions, some spoke up while others remained quiet, but overall I think the session succeeded in engaging most of them. As I walked back to my bike afterwards, I noticed that, although I was pleased it had gone smoothly, I wasn’t feeling especially inspired or energised by the experience.
The following day I went to my desk in the morning, as usual, and wrote freely about these two experiences, using just pen and paper, without pausing to correct anything as I wrote. Later I typed up my written reflections, editing as I went along; and today I reshaped and shortened them for inclusion here.
I could have just thought about these two human encounters, or discussed them with someone else, but the exercise of reflective writing (and rewriting) clarified and developed my thinking. It reaffirmed to me that, given a choice, I will nearly always choose an informal conversation with one of my peers over the alternative of standing in front of a class. And, as well as showing me which activity generates the most energy in me, it helped me work out what I might do differently in future, and even what really matters to me in life. If I choose to continue teaching, I will try to make it as much as possible like a conversation with an equal over coffee.
There is of course nothing new about reflecting on experience. 16th century essayist Michel de Montaigne described how his own mind’s “principal and most difficult study is the study of itself”. Later he expanded:
“For anyone who knows how to probe himself and to do so vigorously, reflection [méditer in the French version] is a mighty endeavour and a full one… The greatest of souls make [it] their vocation, ‘quibus vivere est cogitare’ [“For them, to think is to live”: Cicero]; there is nothing we can do longer than think, no activity to which we can devote ourselves more regularly nor more easily.”
“On three kinds of social intercourse” (“De trois commerces”), essay by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)