Friday, March 16, 2012

Prelude to the dance

here goes nothing...
As a relatively recent convert to the usefulness of a behaviorist perspective in descriptions of learning, I don't feel strongly wedded to the concepts or vocabulary that Skinner proposed so long ago, as resilient as they've proven to be. My appreciation for them is almost exclusively pragmatic: as long as the behaviorist lens serves my aim of unfolding my own latent strengths, making the best of my weaknesses, and helping other creatures to do the same, I'll hold it happily to my eye. But the moment it threatens to obscure the view, I'll toss it.

I'm fickle that way. When I was a theatre scholar (a role I never wore all that convincingly), I loved the idea of "interdisciplinary" study, and I delighted in conversations that spontaneously transgressed the many boundaries - essential, methodological, temperamental - dividing scientific from literary culture (to borrow C.P. Snow's categories). But formal efforts to close the gap seemed almost invariably to encourage the contempt for "fantasy" that's endemic among scientists and academic fantasists (i.e. literary types). Humanities departments are rife with relevance envy, and many of their faculty are eager to prostrate themselves before every promise of effectuality: you mean I might finally say something, do something that touches the world? Wow, hey. Some expunge the embarrassment of being mere doodlers and dreamers by becoming utterly prosaic (and untrained) scientists. Others eventually take up dog training. Ha.

I mean to say that I'm not immune. I caught the neuroscience bug early, and I got excited a few years ago when the contagion spread among my theatrical cohorts. But nothing quashed my enthusiasm like hearing the moderator of a conference seminar sternly remind us that the terms in play were technical, highly specific, and not to be fooled with in any loosey-goosey metaphorical way. Or hearing a director marvel about how wonderful it would be when she could attach electrodes to her actors' heads and discover what a sense memory really was.

Who's going to speak up for the reality of subjective experience if not for the dreamers and fantasists? What can scientists learn from us - why should they suppose we have anything to teach - if we surrender the stage before the play begins? Loose, sloppy, idle, playful, inexact - these are just some of the many strengths of literary culture. We cavort under the banner of "Not Quite." We spill ambiguity and uncertainty in our messy wake. That's our job, and it matters. Big time.

All this because I want to insist that science (generally) and Skinner (specifically) should not have the last word in every conversation about direct physical pressure in training. Next time!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

If you can't say something nice...

joys in dissonance?
...don't say anything at all? This question has recently felt very pressing, as I've been fortunate to get into conversation with some terrific, thoughtful people with whom I happen to disagree on a few points that are near and dear to them and to me (namely, the "proper" use of positive and negative reinforcement and positive punishment in training). Simultaneously, I've found myself resistant to one dominant (ahem!) interpretation of positive reinforcement in the community of "R+ trainers" with which I imperfectly identify. Within that community, when it comes to the negotiation of disagreement among human peers, the operating assumption for many seems to be that direct criticism amounts to a betrayal of the positive reinforcement ethos. Here, as in training situations, we are advised to reward what we like and ignore what we don't.

Insofar as this encourages us to focus more of our attention on the things we hold in common, to affirm the essential worth of the people with whom we're at odds, as well as the particular strengths in their experiences, perspectives, and arguments, this makes great sense to me both in practice and theory. In other words, I like the "reward"/reinforcement part of the equation. But I think the "ignore what you don't like" dictum runs roughshod over the ways that dialogue among contending equals differs (ideally) from even the most open and collaborative training process, which assumes superior knowledge and power of influence in one of the parties. I can attest that when I've been on the receiving end of these significant silences, I have found them positively punishing, as they resound (to my ears) with condescension. My feeling is that, yes, we should hold our tongues if we have nothing nice to say, but it's actually not so nice to end our discussions there.

This is a personal, idiosyncratic response - I realize that my appetite for modestly fractious engagement is unusually strong (maybe a symptom or cause of my theatrical vocation). And "modestly" is a key term there. Especially if the point of disagreement is a tender one, it's hard to trust that the other person won't lose his/her temper, won't fall back on ad hominem nastiness when reason runs aground - almost as hard as it is to trust myself! But I'm pretty sure that I'm not alone in craving the challenges that difficult conversations supply, or in finding them tremendously rewarding not just despite of but because of their difficulty.

So it felt like a delicious bit of serendipity to come across Richard Sennett's new book, Together, at the moment that this conundrum is weighing on my mind. I put a hold on it at the library a couple of weeks ago, because I'd loved his last book, The Craftsman, and I just picked it up today. The introduction alone is a revelation. Sennett is interested in what he calls "difficult cooperation," whether it takes the form of a musical collaboration (he was once a professional cellist), a public policy, or an online conversation. He argues that contemporary life conspires in all sorts of insidious ways to dull our appetite and skills for these demanding encounters, and that we become ever more socially fragmented as a result. I should probably read the rest of the book before trying to summarize his views(!), but here are a couple of choice bits from the first twenty pages:

"In addition to material and institutional reasons, cultural forces today work against the practice of demanding cooperation. Modern society is producing a new character type. This is the sort of person bent on reducing the anxieties which differences can inspire, whether these be political, racial, religious, ethnic or erotic in character. The person's goal is to avoid arousal, to feel as little stimulated by deep differences as possible. The withdrawal of which [Robert] Putnam speaks is one way to reduce these provocations. But so is the homogenization of taste... 'Everybody is basically the same' expresses a neutrality-seeking view of the world. The desire to neutralize difference, to domesticate it, arises (or so I will try to show) from an anxiety about difference which intersects with the economics of global consumer culture. One result is to weaken the impulse to cooperate with those who remain intractably Other."

"Reflexive, self-critical thinking doesn't imply withdrawal from other kids; children can be reflexive together. One piece of evidence [Erik] Erikson provides for this process is game-playing. At the age of five to six, children begin to negotiate the rules for games, rather than, as at the age of two or three, take the rules as givens; the more negotiation occurs, the more strongly do children become bonded to one another in game playing... the very misunderstandings, separations, transitional objects and self-criticism which appear in the course of development are tests of how to relate to other people rather than how to hibernate."

"In the performing arts, the sheer need of others can often prove a shock. Young musical hotshots are often brought up short when they begin playing chamber music; nothing has prepared them to attend to others... Though they may know their own part perfectly, in rehearsal they have to learn the ego-busting art of listening, turning outward. It's sometimes thought that the result moves to the opposite extreme, the musician blending in, submerging his or her ego in a larger whole. But sheer homogeneity is no recipe for making music together - or rather, a very dull recipe. Musical character appears instead through little dramas of deference and assertion; in chamber music, particularly, we need to hear individuals speaking in different voices which sometimes conflict, as in bowings or string colour. Weaving together these differences is like conducting a rich conversation."

Sennett's argument about the general need for more listening and less "asserting" struck a nerve with me, because it's something I recognize as a personal weakness. (Hello, fellow bloggers!) I love this passage and want to learn to live by it: "Usually, when we speak about communication skills, we focus on how to make a clear presentation, to present what we think or feel. Skills are indeed required to do so, but these are declarative in character. Listening well requires a different set of skills, those of closely attending to and interpreting what others say before responding, making sense of their gestures and silences as well as declarations. Though we may have to hold ourselves back to observe well, the resulting conversation will become a richer exchange for it, more cooperative in character, more dialogic."