Verbs—We live by doing
Verbs express intentions. They inform us Why.
Verbs identify agents. They tell us Who.
Verbs locate happenings. They indicate Where.
Verbs announce events. They state When.
Verbs affect consequences? They suggest How.
- Why do you make a deal about verbs? When I want help doing something, I go to a "How-to-site." It's not hard to get the low down on just about anything on sites like wikiHow, the YouTube How To Channel, C|NET's How To, LifeHacker, or Smarter Living on the NY Times, to name a few. Are you trying to compete with all that?
- No, not directly. Here we concentrate on verbs, on the specific forms of acting that each verb indicates, in an effort to understand how and why we might act, or not act, in the course of life. It's not how-to, but choosing. In thinking about verbs, we work to develop our possibilities—to clarify our life choices, to expand options, to strengthen capacities to pursue them, to note pitfalls, to overcome difficulties, to perceive opportunities; we want to correct mistakes, to perfect judgment, to strengthen purpose, perhaps to acquire some wisdom.
- Hey man. Stay tethered! This sounds good, but so does a lot of hype. YouTube has more than enough talks telling us "How to find happiness everyday!" Be real, and to use a verb, "Explain." What's up with verbs here?
- Got it. I'll state the basic idea and then we can explore the questions that I'm sure will follow. But I'll need your attention and cooperation in working with me.
- Go to it! I'm the young one, ready to go!
- Good. Here's the basic idea. A Place to Study is not a how-to site, nor an academic research site. We are a site for anyone anywhere concerned with their self-formation, someone who wants to cultivate their capacities for thoughtful, purposeful activity. We believe that a person thinks and communicates in order to act in ways that she finds meaningful and valuable. Verbs, which express our ways of acting, have a special importance in our thinking and communicating.
- May I interrupt? You talk here about thinking and acting, which a person experiences, and communicating, which involves interaction between two or more persons. How do the two relate?
- That's a big question! And an important one that I'll say just a little about. Note how your question just now turned our attention to something implicit in what I was saying. In my opinion, thinking and acting take place in and through each person, in and through each living being in some way appropriate to it, and the control of thinking and acting takes place through complex feedbacks, which scan a continuous flux of awareness—seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, moving—fixing attention and sustaining concentration on meaningful elements of the flux. Speech and gesture, I suspect, interpersonal communication, starts and builds up as a way to initiate and sustain shared attention, and that is really the function of language.
- That's interesting. If I hear you right, you are saying that language does not convey thinking, but rather directs attention and awareness of context in a way that helps us at some preconscious, prelinguistic level to think the thought ourselves, or thoughts pertinent to matter of attention. Why then are verbs so important?
- Nouns and other parts of speech identify, name, and describe matters of fact. They have less significance for how we attend to matters in thinking, feeling, and acting. Verbs pertain to what takes place in thinking, feeling, and acting. They direct and nuance attention; they indicate what's happening, what takes place, and thus convey the import, the meaning and value, of the eventuality. We communicate with language because we have shared capacities for the actions that verbs represent. Attending closely, to verbs will prove worth a person's while.
Through the doing, a person
creates meaning in her life.
- Hmm.... What you say is interesting, but I sense you've left out some important steps in what you are trying to say. How will attending to verbs, words indicating different forms of thinking, feeling and acting, actually improve our capacities to do the form of doing indicated by the verb? You know the saying, "It's easier said than done." Don't you risk just helping people talk a good game?
- I hope not. But you are right to press on it. Here's where the distinction between teaching and coaching comes in. We don't want to have people just talk about different forms of doing that verbs indicate. We want to help sensitize people to think the actual feel and nuance of the acting. In talking about an action, you might say "I picked the cup up, but it slipped from my hand." But you can also think the action in you mind without executing it, thinking how you reached out somewhat inattentively, lightly grasping the handle at its edges so that it dropped as you raised it up. I've put that in words, but you can think it silently, feeling your inattention and imperfect grasping in your mind.
- I'm a little uncertain what you mean about thinking the action in my mind. Words about it get in the way a bit. Standing still, I can sort of feel how muscles will pushed hard when I try to walk real fast and it feels different if I call to mind walking slowly. Is that an example of what you mean?
- Yes. We do that a lot when we read silently, but noiselessly voicing the words in our minds, inwardly listening to them. We can do that with all sorts of actions—driving, grocery shopping, knitting a sweater, kicking a ball, addressing an audience. Speed reading teaches people not to vocalize in the mind and just to look for words, hopefully important ones, skipping along down the page. That's OK for slurping up information, but as a result the reader can really only talk about the text, having picked up what's covered in it. To think what the writer has said and how she has said it requires closer reading. We really understand things much better by acting them out in our minds and we communicate real understanding by finding ways to get another to think for themselves in their own minds what we are saying.
Meaning is not a noun, a substantive indicating a thing or concept. Meaning, a gerund, takes place when the felt import of a verb effectively makes a sequence of words intelligible.
- I hear you—but it may take a bit for it to sink in so I can think it for myself. But you were going to say something about teaching and coaching. Maybe that'll help.
- Right, it's important, but it's a bit complicated, so bear with me as I ask you some questions. To begin, what does good teaching do?
- It communicates information and knowledge and helps another understand it. Good teaching sometimes excites curiosity and it can even inspire someone occasionally, but I think that happens less through the teaching itself and more through some quality that an inspired student finds emanating from the teacher.
- Yeah. For now let's stick with the idea that good teaching communicates knowledge and promotes understanding of it. Now tell me what good coaching does. Is it the same as good teaching, or different in some way?
- I'd say that coaching involves some knowledge and understanding; there's a lot of how-to, good form, and the clever move involved. And there's a script or a game plan organizing things. But in the end, good coaching should lead to a person or team playing well, performing at full potential. Ah! Let simply say—allowing a bit of fuzziness—that good teaching affects what others know and good coaching improves what they can do. Of course, teachers coach some and coaches teach some, but predominantly teaching involves knowing and coaching doing.
- Great! But what is really different?
- Huh. Will this end? In my experience—I don't think I've experienced either a really great teacher or great coach, but I've experienced pretty good ones— ... in my experience teaching is a kind of one-off process—as a student, you hear it and read it once and you're supposed to get it and then you move on. Sure, there're exercises with some stuff and sometimes review classes, but the teacher has a syllabus to cover. You're supposed to get it once—students with a good teacher get it once and get it, and move on, while students with a bad teacher get it once and don't get it, and move on. You see the difference in teaching in end-of-year exams. Coaching is more repetitive.
- How so?
- In place of a final exam, there's a succession of games or performances, and in between there are practices which are pretty much repetitions of repetitions. The coach says, "Do it again, but try it a bit more this way." Or, "Harder!" "Again!" "Faster!"
- OK, but tell me how all this repeating works. How do you get better from it?
- Well they say, "Practice makes perfect." But right. That doesn't hack it, does it? How might practice make perfect? Can you tell me?
- Ah ha! You're catching on. Knowing, especially knowing that something is the case, really is a kind of one-off matter—you don't know it and once you know it, you know it. Doing something is different. Almost everything we do, we do many times. We take many steps in walking and we walk many times in life. How many times have you breathed in and breathed out? But repetition isn't always the same thing one time after another. We can breathe deeply, or quickly, or hold our breath for a time. And we can think our repetitive actions and try out different ways of doing them in our heads and then actually try a new twist out, sometimes to good effect, other times bad.
- Hey! I've just thought of a riddle! What can you do only once? Come on.... What is it?... OK. You can only die once. You can talk about dying, but you can't even really think in your mind what experiencing it would be, as you put it, it comes out just as a description of what someone else's death might look like.
- Uh. Not bad. What about birth? Some people say they've been "born again," but that's just in a manner of speaking. My birth happens just once.
- Yeah, but people usually speak about their birth as something that happened to them. You don't say, "when I am died", but you do say, "when I was born."
- You're right. Giving birth is something the mother does and she can do that repetitively, whereas dying is something that sooner or later each person does only once, ending life. But let's get back to what happens in between birth and death. All those different actions which we can do repetitively take place through the course of life. Through prior instances of an action, we can become aware of possibilities that we can try to incorporate into our successive performances of it.
- Ah! I guess that's why people keep saying we should be mindful in doing what we do. But you know, too much talk about mindfulness drains it of any meaning.
- Yes. Thinking too much about doing something while trying to do it can seriously impede one's effort. Good coaching helps us develop our awareness of possible adjustments and facilitates our actual incorporating them into our new efforts. "Recursion" arises as we incorporate the results of prior iterations of an action in successive iterations of it. Practice makes perfect through effective recursing, attending to what we are dong and successively incorporating possibilities into what we are doing as we judge them likely to lead to improvement or to avoid complications. But we can do that just in words, in talking a good game. We have to feel the recursive improvement and how we can incorporate it into how we do something at the preconscious level.
- OK, I'm beginning to grasp what you are after with all your interest in verbs. The successive instances of a repetitive action become recursive when information gained from one instance becomes significant in the succeeding instance. We learn by doing when what we do is recursive. But I had several teachers who would use repetition, drill and practice and memorization as a means of instruction far too much. And my mom keeps trying to have my little sister use a math program on her tablet that Sis hates because it is so boring.
- Yeah. Educators have for centuries warned against reliance on repetition and rote learning as instructional methods. It's the recursion, not the repetition, that counts. The student has to take advantage of repeating something, noticing the effect of variations from one time to the next. For the most part, teachers don't generate or control recursion for others, each student does. A cook who doesn't try her own dishes won't become a master chef.
- By studying our actions in our own minds we gain the information and nuance to power recursion. By thinking how we do verbs indicates possibilities we incorporate into the next ... ah! ha! Can we say we rehearse them. We rehearse things, mentally and actively, in order to work on them recursively, uncovering their possibilities and working those into practice.
- Your slipping "rehearse" in here gets you a A for effort, but I think rehearsing has limitations that recursing does not. Both have to do with repetition, but the key thing in rehearsing involves repeating or reciting. I suspect it comes from an old word for doing something over and over again without much variation. In contrast, cumulative variation imparts the special thrust to recursing. It is more open ended than rehearsing. With a good director, the rehearsals of a play might become recursive, extending the script and its interpretation in performance. Recursion takes place when someone uses a function over and over again, each time incorporating possibilities disclosed through its prior activity.
- OK, I understood the use of recursive functions from my computer science course, but can something like that work open-endedly in daily life?
- When my grand daughter was two she wrapped her fist around a pencil, stabbed a sheet of paper with it, squiggled it around making a weird convoluted line, and looked up, mildly satisfied, and said "Bird." She's now 14 and has sketched many more birds and other things and become quite accomplished, largely self-taught, thinking about how and why the result of a sketch differed from what she wanted it to be and trying to incorporate that understanding into her next effort.
- Yeah. Isn't this a lot like what John Dewey would talk about in Democracy and Education as learning through the reconstruction of experience?
- Yes, only I'd attend more closely to the agent doing the recursing. You know from your computer course that a recursive function needs to be controlled effectively, especially calling it into operation and then terminating it at the right time in the right way. There is a big difference between programming the computer and living in the world, however. In the one you control the recursing for the computer, in the other your control it for yourself.
- Er.... Let me see if I really understand your point with respect to A Place to Study. I'm beginning to see that it's pretty radical. You're suggesting that in formal instruction it's difficult to make use of recursing because calling an action into operation, getting attention latched onto it through its operation, and then deciding when to stop it and moving onto something else is not really in the control of the teacher and the formal curriculum. Is that what your are suggesting?
- Yes. What does didactic thinking obsess over—arousing interest and maintaining attention. As sentient, living persons embodied in ourselves and the world around us, we cannot turn over to another full control of our awareness and concentration, our interest and attention. Now make no mistake. I don't think we can or should give up our systems of instruction, but in addition to those we can and should support a freer form of self-education, one that I think can capture the power of recursive self-development more effectively.
- Hey, I shouldn't have mentioned Dewey. I sense you are about to head off into a disquisition on educational philosophy. I want to understand what you are trying to do with verbs on this worksite.
- Fair enough. We would like users to reflect on the why, who, where, when and how of acting in the ways that various verbs that catch their interest indicate. We hope they will reflect on them recursively in order to deepen and enlarge their capacities to use such modes of action in their lived experience. What we want to have happen here is more like coaching, than teaching, a kind of self-coaching.
- Can you fill out what you mean by that?
- Well, there are really two levels to it, one for people we call users, visitors (recurrent we hope) who want to use the site but not contribute to it, and another for participants, who will work creating the site as constraints and interests permit. Let's primarily keep users in mind here. We might talk about participants some other time.
- Fine. How is self-coaching going to work for users of A Place to Study?
- We won't have a hologram of Nick Sabin yelling from the sidelines. Self-coaching needs to arise through the way the worksite is structured and implemented. It has (will have) very many pages each for a different verb, different concept, different person, all interconnected with lists and links. Each page, lightly structured itself, is a node in a large, lightly structured collection, dense with interconnecting pathways. All the pages should be within two clicks of each other and each user should pursue a unique path among the pages according to their interests.
- Browsing with the browser with a mix of purpose and serendipity?
- Yes. For many years I've tried to make a case for the place of study in a world of instruction, none too successfully. Studying something is a very recursive activity, for the person studying is continually adjusting the course of inquiry in the light of what she has just found out. Instruction not so much; the instructor has a plan for the class as a whole and adapting it as it unfolds is difficult and risks confusing at least some in the group. Here, we invite users to study verbs, to study different ways of acting as we can act them out in thinking them, in doing them in the mind, not just thinking about them.
- Well, I see that the verb "to study" and engaging in the activity of studying go together on this worksite pretty well, but I imagine you are going to deal with many verbs that indicate actions that participants here won't directly engage in. We're not going to dance here.
- I can speak to this problem. It's interesting, really important to the relation between thinking and acting. For one, we tend to talk about things we do online as if we do them in isolation from all the rest of our lives, day in day out. In fact everything embeds in everything else. Some of those activities that we won't actually do while trying to recurse them here mentally, dancing, as you mention, we may very well do elsewhere in life.
- Yeah. I'm going to a party this weekend and will try to put your recursing in thought about dancing into practice. Kidding aside, I see that understanding language as a kind of trigger for thinking and as an important cue for memory allows for a lot of flexibility in the relation of thinking and acting, allowing for a lot of distance in time and space. I guess that's why cultural works can have so much influence in life.
- Quite an insight! We can infuse our lives with continuity and coherence as culturally communicated cues diffuse the sharing of thinking and acting. We hope that people will find A Place to Study a means for their recursive engagement with the cultural heritage, building up their capacities for thinking, feeling, and acting, not merely taking in things to say about what others thought and did. Maybe it will prove to be an effective place where people can actually do what we hear a lot about from educators—"learning to learn."
- That's right on! I recently checked out Coursera's "Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects." Sorry to interrupt.... But it's probably irrelevant, too packaged.
- No problem. You're right, we don't do courses. In the context of courses, learning to learn consists in learning techniques for better soaking up what the syllabus covers. We don't want to impose a syllabus on your inquiry. It's a problem how formal instruction gets bracketed so easily, compartmentalized. People should cultivate self-formation wherever they are, with others or alone. It's great if you get together with others and study together as peers, bouncing things off one another, moving along together, but with each having a distinctive flow of experience. But together or singly, you can build up capacities for recursing creatively in new activities by engaging intelligently with important verbs, ones embedded in your larger sphere of activity, in all aspects of your life. We can do things in thought, including doing them recursively, because we have a feel for the actions they involve.
- You know, as we've been talking I've started to think that people pretty naturally have a recursive interest in verbs, more in ways of acting that the verbs indicate. I really like trying things out and getting a sense I can do something that seemed beyond me.
- I agree. People are rather spontaneously curious about watching people working and playing. But although engaging, recursively mastering different ways of acting presents challenges. It seems to happen with progressive difficulty, first taking place almost automatically but then becoming more and more difficult to sustain—unpredictable, potentially repetitive in a boring kind of way. Whatever the activity, a fair number of people seem to become passably competent, while very few achieve surpassing excellence although from time to time a prodigy may appear, no one knowing quite how or why. Doing things together may push the recursion further and/or faster. We hope participants on the worksite with reflect on their self-coaching and tell us all what seems helpful and what a hindrance.
- Thanks, look at the time! I'm going to have to go soon. This back and forth has given me a lot to think about. But maybe you'd say a bit more about an idea you mentioned early on.
- Sure. I'm glad you'll be leaving with some questions to think further on. We call this the Reflective Commons hoping that people will find lots of good questions to think about here. What did you want to go back to?
- You said that you thought verbs had a special importance in thinking and communicating and I was going to ask you to say more about it. But actually, that's not necessary as I think I can do it myself. At first, I didn't understand very well how verbs could have special importance in thinking and communicating. What you said just seemed like a starting point, some words to begin with. But then as we talked back and forth and asked questions and had ideas and sort of thought about ourselves doing all that as we were doing it, I've started to recognize that that has been not just me engaging in talk about thinking, but in the course of it I've, we've really been thinking some new thoughts and I feel them fitting together, making sense, and we've actually communicated some things with each other because we've been thinking them in our own minds, not just in words. I've heard talk about "the inner life," and this isn't that. In such talk, the phrase is too fixed. But as we've gone back and forth, we've lived inwardly and we've worked to understand each other, not perfectly or completely, but substantively. It takes work, but you know, I think I can think for myself in this way a little better, slowing down, experiencing silently in my mind the acting suggested by my words and the words you've said, working out what we might think and do in all that. I imagine I won't be able to hold it in mind all the time. I already feel all the outer stuff pressing back in on my reflections. Sorry I gotta go. But I expect we'll have other opportunities to get back into our heads, and when I do, I'll have more confidence in what's going on. And get more from it. Well, so long. Thanks. I'll be back. Let's keep building the inner life!
- Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019) p. 380.