Attentiveness: Both fast and slow

The art historian Jennifer Roberts gives her students a simple assignment. For the term paper they will write on a single work of art they must begin by spending three hours viewing the painting, "noting down his or her evolving observations as well as the questions and speculations that arise from those observations.”

It’s not exactly a popular learning method, she said, but she has her reasons. Writing in Harvard Magazine

The time span is explicitly designed to seem excessive. Also crucial to the exercise is the museum or archive setting, which removes the student from his or her everyday surroundings and distractions...What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.
— Jennifer Roberts, Harvard Magazine

This is an interesting way to look at all of learning, whether visual, auditory, reading/writing. Like many others, I have a very bad habit of bouncing around from subject to subject. In fact, my curiosities leap from topics like an ADHD sufferer. I don’t really learn these topics, and it shows: I can only recall the bare outlines of subjects and I can rarely put them into context.  Learning things on the internet only makes this habit worse.

Roberts again:

I think that if we want to teach history responsibly, we need to give students an opportunity to understand the formative values of time and delay. The teaching of history has long been understood as teaching students to imagine other times; now, it also requires that they understand different temporalities. So time is not just a negative space, a passive intermission to be overcome. It is a productive or formative force in itself.
— Jennifer Robers, Harvard Magazine

What does slowing down offer? Roberts said that she began a project dissecting a painting by the artist John Singleton Copley with this very method. Within minutes of just staring at his Boy with a Squirrel, Roberts began seeing things she may have never have noticed, ideas and details that became central to her thesis. 

With my history of topic jumping, this process has a lot of attraction to me. Here’s a list of potential uses:  

  • Reading even deeper into specific subjects: Every six months I choose a few topics to direct my reading, allowing me to learn a bit more about an issues that interests and hopefully see how the ideas of one topic fits together with what I already know.

Right now my subject reading is the environment and climate change. To follow Roberts’ idea, perhaps I can dive deeper on The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, my first book in this series. I could start by looking through her bibliography and developing a deeper sense of the sources she relied on. Kolbert covers a lot of ground in the book, but she’s writing for a general audience. It may be wise to dig deeper like reading on the subjects written for scientists, keying on the major issues they realize and comparing it back to Kolbert’s version. The idea is to take an individual text more seriously instead of blithely moving from title to title.

  • Writing deeper on subjects. Perhaps I could decide to tackle a specific subject in my writing. Like my learning, my writing flits from subject to subject, never allowing me to dig deep and develop my own ideas. Focusing in on a single narrow subject (like workers rights today) as opposed to a much larger one (say, the perils of contemporary capitalism) would force me to percolate ideas longer and better detail my thoughts and opinions.