Thinking in Slow Motion

Kristen Renn, Michigan State University

Philosophy is thinking in slow motion. It breaks down, describes and assesses moves we ordinarily make at great speed – to do with our natural motivations and beliefs. It then becomes evident that alternatives are possible.

John Campbell, Philosophy, University of California at Berkeley

One of the great joys of academic life is that we haven’t the faintest idea where we’re going. This allows us to actually examine what’s around us, ask questions about why it exists in the form that it does, ask whether other forms might be possible.

(This sets academic life in direct opposition to university administration, of course, in which the daily facts of money and buildings and regulations and investments constrain our options to near zero. The fact of moving from faculty to administration means leaving behind, forever, the possibilities of unfettered investigation—the unfettered investigation that drew us all in the first place.)

One of the people I’ve worked with in my academic writing coaching has spent many years investigating the issues around marketing toward multi-racial consumers. For instance, if one has both white and Black family, does one identify more fully with advertising featuring white or Black actors or spokespeople? What radio stations do you spend your advertising dollars with?

She’s relied extensively on the work of Kristen Renn, the person whose photo is at the top of today’s message. One of Renn’s key contributions to our thinking is the idea that our identity—the identity we think of as entirely individual—may not exist solely within our own history, or our own DNA. She has developed a body of theory called situational identity or ecological identity, the core of which is that whatever circumstance we find ourselves within offers us some range of identities that we can take up. Specifically, in her own research around multi-racial college students, she says that some students identify strongly with one race or another; some identify specifically as multi-racial; some reject the idea of race and refuse what they believe to be artificial categorization; but some identify differently depending on the situation they find themselves in at the moment. They might be the Blackest person among their white friends, and the whitest person among their Black friends. They might choose to take up different aspects of multiple cultures, and those choices might change over time, or in relationship to different institutions. Just the form we receive that asks us to check a box does two things: it restricts our identities to those named, and then requires that we select only one of the options. It is a situation that enables a particular kind of response.

The idea of ecological identity is way more complex than I can lay out here. (I’ve used it extensively in my own fiction writing, a development that Renn likely never would have predicted.) My point today is that we can only develop productively unsettling ideas when we have the time to do that. Our drive toward speed and efficiency (and distraction and constant engagement) makes it much less likely that we will spend the time required to ask fundamental questions about why and what else. To spend the time to explore the contradictions that inevitably arise in any system of beliefs, and to not paint over them but to take them apart and discover why they exist, what they imply.

The great blessing of being (semi, sort of) retired is that I don’t have to go to any more meetings. I don’t have to write reports that respond to someone else’s outline, for someone else’s purposes, reports in which the outcomes are foreordained and all we do is fill in the local color. Writers get to ask annoying, nonproductive questions, and then write our way out of them. We get to think in slow motion.

I can’t imagine anything more fun.

Good Things Don’t Scale

Now I would like… five hundred more sets.

Back in the late 70s, before Xerox was a generic term meaning “photocopier,” the Xerox company made an advertisement about their new and remarkable product. Brother Dominic (at right, above) had painstakingly hand-illustrated a manuscript, and eagerly brought it to the monastery’s abbot (at left). “Very nice work, Brother Dominic… very nice. Now I would like… 500 more sets.” So Brother Dominic sneaks out and goes to the Xerox shop, and returns soon after with the stacked sets. The abbot says, “It’s a miracle…”

Well, no. It’s just a mechanical reproduction, with none of the attentiveness or love of the original.

I got an e-mail this week from someone who’d recently read The Adjunct Underclass, and was telling me about her teaching expectations at a third-tier state university. Four courses per semester, averaging 35 students per course, plus all of her departmental and university service work. That’s just mechanical reproduction, with none of the attentiveness or love that we would hope a real education could carry.

I’m in the final days of teaching my independent fiction course, with twelve students. For each of the first five weeks, I wrote two assignments, and thought through what each participant had sent in each case. For the past three weeks, they’ve moved from research to writing story drafts, and I’ve marked up anywhere from six to a dozen drafts for each of the twelve participants.

Twelve students for eight weeks. And I’m tired. It’s real work to be that attentive to that amount and that diversity of work. Just the logistics of organizing papers and naming files and making sure that I’m looking at the most current draft is an addition to the effort.

So when I think about 140 students for 15 weeks, or 21.875 times the workload I just finished, it scares me. It scares me because the only way one human can do that much work is to rely, like Brother Dominic, on mechanical reproduction. To repeat the lesson plans, to make the homework into quizzes, to give every student one bite at the apple rather than sit with the repetition and revision that enables understanding and seals growth into place.

For the students, too. Each of my dozen writers has been at work on the same story at least twice a week for three weeks. They’ve swapped out characters, dropped whole hard-won scenes that were necessary for manufacture but not for use, have circled closer and closer to their prey. We’re at the point now where we’re considering punctuation and typography, microscopic but meaningful contributors to the voice of story. And they’re exhausted, too. But in a week or two, when they recover, they’ll know what they’ve gained.

Education… real education… is slow, and expensive, and (to use the awful language of marketing) “high-touch.” It used to be a luxury good, purchased only by the wealthy. And so what we offer now is a vastly diminished version, a mechanical reproduction that carries the content without the care. This is not the fault of any participant; everyone involved is smart and hardworking. But like any product, what was once sold at Bonwit Teller bears only passing similarities to what is now sold at Dollar General. The fate of all mass products is that they are mass products, subject to regulation and reproduction and worker quotas. They become commodities, responsive to price pressure rather than quality pressure, interchangeable across providers.

There are no miracles available to us, only love and attentiveness and focus. When those are removed, we are left with quantity, and marketing, and loss.