Showing posts with label learning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label learning. Show all posts

05 June 2014

A Matter of Belief


by Eve Fisher

There's been a lot of talk on-line about a movie called "God's Not Dead" in which an evil atheist professor forces his students to sign a declaration saying "God is Dead" to pass his class.  (Of course the Christian hero doesn't and wins the day.)  Well, contrary to certain ultra-fundamentalist myths, that doesn't happen.  No professor requires anyone to sign anything against their personal beliefs.  But we do often require them to learn things that don't necessarily agree with their beliefs and therein hangs a tale.


When I was teaching World and Asian history at university, I honestly developed a resentment towards certain types of the home-schooled.  There was the guy who, when I started talking about Charles Darwin, put down his pencil and refused to take a single note.  He didn't care that I wasn't teaching science but history. He didn't care that Social Darwinism was a major part of racism, militarism and WWI.  He wasn't going to learn about Darwin.  Period.

There was another who, when I asked for the connection between the Mexican Revolution and Karl Marx, wrote "Communism is a failed ideology".  (By the way, the correct answer is that Mexico claims that its revolution was the first Communist revolution, which it is.)  He wrote this for EVERY question about Communism, and I gave him a zero every time.  Communism was a huge problem for a number of people, by the way.  They just didn't want to have to learn about it, since, after all, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Empire was destroyed, and Communism was dead.  (I'd remind them about China, and sometimes there would be a moment of silence followed by a long sigh as most of them picked their pencils back up.  But not all...)




There was always one person who, when I was teaching about Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, etc., had to explain to the class how Christianity was the only true religion.  Sometimes they would demand to know my beliefs, and I would say "I'm here to teach history, not proselytize", but they wouldn't get the hint. In fact, they usually decided that I must be an atheist, since I didn't let them preach to the class.  That or I was a Roman Catholic, and if you can see the logic to that, please explain it to me.


The connecting thread here is that these people all thought that learning ABOUT something was the same as believing IN it.  They really felt that if they learned about a political alternative, like socialism or communism, or a religious alternative, like Buddhism or Islam, they were (1) accepting it, (2) approving it, (3) in danger of becoming it.  Even though they had no problem hosing up all the info they could get about Nazis or serial killers.  Sometimes  they could take it if it was far enough in the past - I could talk paganism till the cows came home, and discuss Plato and Aristotle, Stoicism and Epicureanism.  Although they did get a little nervous when I'd point out the points in Platonism and Stoicism that had been adopted by early Christianity...

But, as I said, I developed a resentment.  I got so sick of trying to teach them that learning about something outside their comfort zone was not me trying to convert them, but was quite simply trying to get them to understand how the world got the way it is, today.  I had to teach them how to learn fearlessly.  And in the process, I realized how much the concept of learning about something = believing in something is a wonderful tool to control people. I don't know what these students were being taught at home, but I do know that if you scare people so they won't learn, you can tell them almost anything.  You have gotten them to put bars on their own minds, which only makes it harder to ever get them off.




Orwell got these statements straight from Jean Jacques Rousseau's "The Social Contract".  But you'd have to have taken notes in my class to know it.

30 July 2012

Brain Exercises


by Jan Grape

How do we learn? Have you ever watched babies or toddlers interact with each other? Many times it's monkey see, monkey do. They learn from each other. If one rolls a ball, the other laughs and then he gets the ball and rolls it. If one stacks one block on top of the other, then on of the other children will see that and stack one block on top of the other. Babies and little children learn from their parents and their siblings. Their teachers and friends. Babies and little children are like sponges, they soak up everything.

Guess what? Animals also learn from each other. My female cat, Nora, is the one I call the smart one. She learns something, like jumping from the floor to the big stuffed chair to the top of the bar and down onto the kitchen counter top in order to get the the sink and water faucet. Her brother, Nick, is Mr. Friendly and is somewhat like the dog, Odie in the Garfield comic strip. He goes along happily ignoring most everything, until suddenly he sees Nora doing her jumping act and then he copies her. They both love jumping to the counter to get to the kitchen sink and then try to get me to turn on the water faucet so they can drink. (I ignore them.)

As writers we read other writers and learn from them. At times we are just baby writers, we read and study and learn how to write. We can see how other writers make a character seem real and intriguing. We see how someone plots and we learn how to do the same. We learn from someone how to build tension. We read a book by someone we think is an excellent writer and we learn from them. We go "wow" I never thought of that. Or how in the heck did they do that? We learn how to set the scene, how to write realistic dialog. We learn how to end chapters. We learn how to get through the middle part of the book. We learn how to bring everything to a climatic end and bring it all to a closure.

I don't mean we copy from them. But we can analyze other's work and learn. And then we practice, practice, practice. Yes, you can learn how to write better by practice writing. You can take a published book and actually set out to copy it on paper word for word. I hope you've picked up and are using a really good book. Use one that you know has won an Edgar or a Shamus award if you're interested in writing mysteries or thrillers. This exercise is for practice, not to plagiarize someone.

You begin copying the first line, the first paragraph, and the first page. Pay attention as you copy. How did the author grab your attention? If that book doesn't grab you on the first page. Put that book down and pick up another one. As a retired book seller I learned just how important that first page is because a person who picks up your book just might not buy that book if you lose them on the first page.

Take Stieg Larrson's, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. Chapter one begins and reads as follows:
Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. It was just before 1:30 in the morning.

Tell me that doesn't grab your attention. Who is this doctor? Where is he that a helicopter is on its way? And who do you think might be in the helicopter? Man, woman or child? Is the doctor in the military because a helicopter is expected to land in five minutes. Or could he be on an aircraft carrier bringing a wounded soldier? Is the doctor a good guy or a bad guy? Is the incoming patient a good guy or a bad guy? We don't know yet, but I can almost guarantee that you're going to want to read at least a little more to see what is going on.

I chose the next example just to show how after a very intriguing opening scene, and then when you get only a few pages into the story, how you are hooked and grabbed once again.  Look at this paragraph on Page 6 of Lee Child's book, Echo Burning. 

Seven thirty-nine, more than three hundred miles to the north and east, Jack Reacher climbed out of his motel room window. One minute earlier, he had been in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. One minute before that, he had opened the door of his room to check the morning temperature. He had left it open, and the closet just inside the entrance passageway was faced with a mirrored glass, and there was a shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm, and by a freak of optical chance he caught sight of four men getting out of a car and walking toward the motel office. Pure luck, but a guy as vigilant as Jack Reacher gets lucky more times than the average.

A big wow. Five sentences in that paragraph but what a wealth of information here. A man, a vigilant man, named Jack Reacher is running from someone. There's a brief description of the motel room...can't you just see it? The mirrored glass on the closet door? The shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm? How can you not keep reading?

I honestly think good writing is a talent but great writing takes some effort on your part. And if you learn from other outstanding writers you almost have to learn to be a better writer.

Don't think there's anything wrong in copying another's writing. You're only doing this as a learning experience, a writing exercise. Like I said at the beginning, we learn from each other. Even as a baby. Even as one animal or bird learns from their parent. We can learn. And if you're going to learn to be a better writer, then copy from the best. Learn from the award winners or the best-selling authors. But strive to be a better writer. You'll be glad you did and so will your readers.

26 January 2012

A Few Reasons I Prefer Mysteries to Literature




by Deborah Elliott-Upton
As a person who believes we start to die the moment we stop learning, I decided to take a class on literature. I am reading selections by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. It's not that I have ever read these authors; it's just that my personal tastes run toward Christie, Spillane and Chandler. Still, to learn is to grow and I am certainly not ready to die.
In deciphering the meanings behind the sybolism within these author's works, I am not what the teacher expects of her students. The second day of class she asked if we were alone in a room with Hitler and knew for a fact all that he would do to the world and we had a gun, would we kill him. She knew my name and I sat on the front row, so she directed the question to me first.
I said I would have no problem killing Hitler. She was a bit taken aback and after several other students agreed with me, she said, "My other classes always say they couldn't shoot an unarmed man."
I silently wondered if my fellow students were mystery buffs like me. Of course, since I am not alone and armed in a room with Hitler and completely sure he would try to take over the world, we'll never know if I could actually commit murder and pull that trigger. But, that wasn't her question. If I find a way to time travel and have that opportunity, I'll let you know the outcome. (That is, if the world hasn't changed so drastically that neither of us are here to discuss those actions at this particluar time and place on the Internet.)
My opinions on symbolism are not necessarily that of the instructor and obviously not shared by most literary authors according to the grades on my last quiz. I don't necessarily believe that is a bad thing. I am merely tracking clues to find another answer, one that may not be ones looking for the obvious. I feel a bit like bumbling Columbo who seems to be asking questions that don't make any sense, but do lead to another corridor, albeit not the one expected.
That's one of the thing I like about mysteries: there is an obvious point made by the story's end. It isn't shrouded in symbolism; it simply is a bad guy caught or at least recognized as the bad guy. In most cases we know should he show up in another book, he will be chased down by our hero for his criminal activity.
Crime doesn't pay in most mysteries. That sets mystery stories apart from literary works, too. In literature like life, anything can happen. A mystery novel's probability is it will end with someone being tagged as guilty and going to jail or paying his debt to society with his life. Real life and literature isn't as neat and tidy. I like tidy.
In mysteries, you never turn a page expecting to see more and find the story has ended abruptly and without tying up all the details into a nice, satisfying package. If the detective hasn't bound the criminal to face his judgment by the end of the book, it better be that he managed to escape from the authorities grasp ala Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs or Moriarty in a Sherlock Holmes story and not that they simply didn't deduce who the culprit could be.
So, why am I taking a series of workshops on literature? Because I love to discover more about good storytelling from every angle. I want to learn from masters whose works lived long beyond them. I want to see if I can learn to do a better job figuring out their intent through the mysterious methods of symbolism.
If I had my druthers, I'd want to be Agatha Christie instead of Ernest Hemingway any day. Maybe it's because I'd enjoy y work being discussed for its clever clues more than what think I meant in a storyline. Maybe it's just because I wouldn't look so great in a mustache and beard.