Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Wednesday, 22 May 2002

I've gotten some good writing done lately. The new gene engineering story is around 800 words. I've also been getting a bit of reading done in Esperanto every day. It's been too long since I made time for that.

Jackie's been sleeping in lately. I got up and made her bed coffee this morning for the third time in just a week or so.

I put a link on my main page to the Eldred v. Ashcroft site. It's about a challenge to the constitutionality of the most recent copyright extension. Copyright is good, but it is supposed to be limited and for a purpose. Congress has forgotten that. This lawsuit is to try to bring some balance back into the deal, where the author gets exclusive rights for a limited time and then the public gets an ever-expanding public domain.

The rest of this article is a long, rambling rant about learning. It's in serious need of editing, but I don't have the time or energy tonight. Still, it's what I've been thinking about lately, so I thought I'd post it.

I've always been unwilling to learn things by memorizing lists. This caused me problem in elementry school, where they constantly seemed to be wanting us to memorize lists.

Looking back on it, I might have benefited from memorizing the multiplication tables. But, generally, I think my choice was the best one.

Because of my unwillingness to just memorize the spellings of words, I was a terrible speller. When I was a freshman in college I was still having trouble spelling words like "care." But, in a few weeks my first semester of college (and with the help of an early spell-checking computer program) I learned how to spell most of the words I actually used every day.

Memorizing lists comes up again when learning a foreign language. I find that I pick up vocabulary better without memorizing lists, so that's okay. But nearly all the textbooks include lists. Lists of vocabulary words are only the beginning. In Esperanto, for example, verbs are either transitive or intransitive. There aren't any (well, hardly any) verbs like the English verb "boil" which can be either. (She boiled the water for ten minutes. The soup boiled on the stove.) The Esperanto verb boli means the latter. If you want the former you need to say boligi.

There are only a couple dozen verbs where these issues of transitivity actually make problems for English speakers. This fact encourages textbook writers to produce a couple of lists for students to memorize. A well-drilled student can then, when he's about to say "Hang the sign on the wall," will remember that the verb pendi (to hang) is intransitive and that he needs to say, "Pendigu la signon sur la muro."

But, I just cannot bring myself to memorize lists, and even when I try, they don't stick. The only way I can learn something like that is to read and read (and, if I can, listen and listen) many instances of people using the language correctly. Then I'll just automatically get it right. I hope.

The learning stuff comes to mind not only because I'm reading more Esperanto (and, so, struggling with things I haven't learned). I also went to two classes this week--one on Friday on UMTS (the new digital cell phone standard) and one on Saturday on CPR. Both were totally transmissional learning environments. The CPR one at least provided for some hands-on practice with dummies to do CPR on. The UMTS class was just six hours of lecture with slides. It's not the best way to learn stuff.

I never objected to transmissional learning when I was younger, though, I guess just because I'm above average in my ability to learn that way. In the CPR class I got 100% correct on both tests. Throughout school I always did well when the class went according to that particular scenario--a classroom instructor tells us everything that we are expected to know, and then gave us a multiple-choice or short-answer test to let us to demonstrate that we did, in fact, learn what was taught. It's not just temporary learning, either. On a wide range of topics that I've studied, if you gave me the same test again (now twenty years later) I could still pass.

But, in the years since I was a student, I've discovered what a poor substitute for genuine mastery of a subject such learning is. Many times I have struggled with a problem, taught myself how to structure it in a way that's amenable to a solution, discovered and applied basic concepts, solved the problem, thought about how to generalize my solution, and then said, "D'oh! That's what they were trying to teach in that class!" It's much, much rarer that I come to a problem, say, "Hmm, they taught us how to solve this problem that class, so I know how to approach it," even when that's true.


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