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Posts Tagged ‘noticing’

When we do these exercises where I ask the students what they see through the window, or what they notice in the room where we are sitting, they often ask me what I see; what I notice. I am reluctant to say, in case they think that they should be taking what I see as some kind of a model, which it is not. But of course the exercise is always as instructive for me as it should be for the students. We have just done the exercise where I ask them to list what they notice about the room we are in. What might I write? What did I notice this time around?

First, as always, I notice myself, looking out at the world from inside my body. I am conscious of the familiar window through which I always look. Next, I see the room in its context: a particular, tiny location surrounded by a huge framework  of space, and a particular tiny moment surrounded before and after by a huge framework of time. I make a deliberate effort not to be side-tracked into a discussion of Proust.  Seen in that overwhelming context of history and geography the room reminds me instead of the “Total Perspective Vortex” in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which is a device that shows the person connected to it exactly where they are in the huge totality of the Universe – a tiny, tiny dot in space and time, so utterly insignificant relative to everything that ever has existed or ever will exist that the human mind cannot survive the confrontation. I see the room in context with its surroundings as the smallest inside edge of everything that is beyond it, and as the tiniest moment of time swamped before and afterwards by the rest of history. It is as though I am inside a tiny bubble surrounded by an infinite fog. All I see is the inside edge of the fog but I know it stretches out to touch everything else – all the space and time that I can’t see from here. And so, by touching the fog, I touch all of that.

Mervyn Peake wrote a poem “Is there no love can link us?” in which he referred to “this hectic moment, this fierce instant striking now its universal, its uneven blow… this sliding second we share: this desperate edge of now”.  When I look out into the room that is what I see – the sliding second, constantly slipping to the next and leaving itself behind. A moment surrounded by, and connected to, all the other moments.

Having drawn on Mervyn Peake to provide an illustration of the room’s historical context I think of another of Peake’s poems for a spatial context to describe how I notice the room as a tiny part of a bigger whole.  In “Suddenly, walking along the open road” Peake describes how – while walking amongst the “banal normality” of the houses and fields and trees of Wiltshire – he becomes intensely aware of his place on the surface of a ball spinning through space: “the world below my feet became a planet”, “a marble spinning through the universe wears on its dizzy crust, men, houses, trees…”.  As I look out into the room, I notice – and pay attention to the fact –  that the room is situated on that marble spinning through the universe, and I remember how I often used to say that a Geographer should be able to feel the world spinning.

Do I say all that to the students? No, not really. I say: “try to see the room first of all in its broader context. See the big picture. Try to think at different scales.”

Then, having thought a little bit about the big picture, I can move on and start to consider the more local, human scale… Of which, perhaps, more in a later post. Perhaps then I’ll use Proust, or at least a madeleine… or a small piece of fairy cake.

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I tried a new exercise in the opening lecture with my final year “Inspirational Landscapes” undergraduates this week. It was actually a modification of the exercise I’ve written about previously where students have to list the things they see out of the window and we then discuss how we can learn to notice more in the world around us.

In this year’s modification of the exercise I asked the students, who had never done the original exercise and so were approaching it without any prior training, to make a list of the things that they noticed about the room in which we were all sitting. After they had made their own lists I asked them to imagine what I, their geography lecturer, might be noticing about the room: what did they imagine my list would include? Interesting issues arose both from the students’ own lists and from their guesses about my list. Both sets of lists give me something to work with over the remaining weeks of the module, and in the final week I will ask them to repeat the exercise and see if their lists have changed: whether they are noticing more in the world about them after they have done the course and whether they are any better at imagining how the world looks from a different point of view.

The exercise will also serve as a bit of background if I decide to talk to them later on about Xavier de Maistre (1763-1852), who wrote a travel book about a single room, “Voyage Around my Room”, during a period of confinement. That could form the basis of an interesting project in this module, if a student were to pick up the idea. In fact, I already feel a project of my own coming on! Alain de Botton writes about this notion, and discusses de Maistre’s work, towards the end of his own “The Art of Travel” (2002). [see  The Art of Travel at Amazon]

The students’ lists of what they noticed in our lecture room were all remarkably similar. More than 90% of the group listed only items such as lights, chairs, whiteboard, projector, and so on. Almost every item on every list was visual – not many listed anything about the sounds or the smells, let alone the emotions or the social politics. Not many set their observations into any kind of framework or context – nobody pointed out that this was a room with a specific purpose, that it was part of a University, that it was designed in a European style, that it was built specifically at a human scale to accommodate particular human activities. These things were taken for granted and therefore ignored. The students chose not to notice them or, if they noticed them, they chose not to record them on their list. Not many organised their list into a hierarchy or drew it as an interconnected system. Not many started with the big picture and worked down to the detail, or vice versa. Not many compared the room with any other room to help define its essential nature, or its volume, or its history, its comfort, its temperature, or what was happening to them in it. Nobody included themselves in their list of what was in the room. Nobody thought to calculate its weight. But, then, why would they? Nobody mentioned Xavier de Maistre.

Asking the students to list what they imagined I was noticing about the room was a new exercise. I had imagined that asking them to try that new task might push them into thinking of some new things that they had not noticed until I suggested looking from someone else’s point of view, and would therefore enable them to expand their original lists of things they noticed by importing observations that they dreamed up by imagining my view. I thought that even if they only translated their own view of a learning space into what they might imagine was my view of a teaching space, that would be a step in the right direction. I was actually quite interested to see how students at this level would imagine their lecturer’s perspective.

Their lists surprised me.

Other than that they had me looking (and I use that word literally and deliberately) from a different angle, and therefore, for example, had a better view of the windows, the new lists were more or less the same as the lists that the students made for themselves. They thought that they and I, and presumably everybody, would notice the same things about the room. On my behalf they listed again the rows of seats, the projector, the whiteboard… Some of them suggested that I would notice the faces of the students, looking variously interested or otherwise, but for the most part they imagined my attention to be focused on the carpet, the ceiling tiles and the clock. The room they imagined me inhabiting sounded very dull, and from their descriptions I do not recognise the room. I wonder, if they think those are the things that I notice in the world, why do they think I am there talking to them? What could I have to say? My colleagues often ask why students don’t seem to pay much attention to their advice. Based on what these lists indicate about how students imagine their tutors’ perspectives, the ideas or insights that their tutors might have to offer, I think we have the answer. The students don’t seem to imagine that we see much more than them. Perhaps they are right. It is hard to know for sure.

Seeing things well, even from our own point of view, is difficult. Seeing things from somebody else’s point of view is even harder. Realising that the students seem to have no idea what I see when I am in the room with them is quite scary. On the one hand it clarifies for me the distance they have to travel in this module about seeing more in the world around them, but on the other hand it makes me think that when I am talking to them about all the exciting and fascinating things around us they probably have no idea what I am talking about! These things that I am explaining, these things that have inspired me – have the students noticed them? Of course, to the “educator” in me this makes me think of learning opportunities, teachable moments and the need to recognise the perspective of those with whom I am working. Do not take it for granted that they see the same world that you do when you start to explain the world to them.

Me? I see rainbows and unicorns, of course. Doesn’t everybody?

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Three exhibitions of things not quite

I have been working on ideas for some exhibitions focusing around the idea of collecting things that are not quite present. The first exhibition started life under the title “Spaces” and was intended to be a collection of scenes captured at the moment when the important subject had just moved away. Rooms photographed just after the person in whom the photographer was interested had left. Branches just after the bird that a photographer had been stalking has flown out of frame. Moments just after the important moment, which are then redefined to become important themselves. These are the moments immediately after most people have looked away. These are the points where the period of noticing has just ended, and a different period is just beginning. With practice, we can extend our period of noticing and learn to capture these moments. Otherwise they may as well never have existed. We can learn to be not only in the moment, but in the moment after. We can learn to keep noticing.

As that idea evolved it became clear that what I was trying to capture were not just spaces, but moments, and so the working title for that first exhibition became “The moment after”. It was important that these were not images simply of things left behind. I did not want the detritus after the flood, or the circle on the grass after the circus. I was not looking for after-effects, or signs, or evidence. I was looking specifically for absence, rather than for any indication of former presence. Without an accompanying caption or story it would not be apparent what had just been missed, but once the absence was known, the moment after would acquire some significance.

As the idea of “The moment after” moved forward I found myself struggling to capture the notion that these were moments other than, but close to, the important moment. There was always the trap, the danger, of capturing the moment itself, or some shadow of it, rather than the blankness of the moment after. The moments I wanted were obviously not “the President making a speech”; they were not even “the room where the President had made the speech”. Also I didn’t want simply to capture a relic such as “the podium at which the President had stood”. What I wanted was specifically a moment when the president was not there; the speech was no longer being made; nobody was paying attention. These were moments that had escaped and may almost as well never have occurred. They were moments that did not matter other than in that they were adjacent to moments which had. And that idea of adjacency drew my back to my geographical roots, setting me on the path to a new idea: the idea of locations adjacent to, but absolutely other than, important or well-known locations. Here would be an image not of the room where a famous event had occurred, but a room in a building across the street. A room in the unremarkable apartment upstairs from the famous apartment where the event had occurred. These were peripheral locations. Locations to which everybody had their backs turned at the important moment. These locations were simply nearby, which gave me the title for the exhibition: “Nearby”.

“The moment after” and “Nearby” drew attention to moments and places that were close to, but other than, the moments and places that everybody noticed. In trying to identify items for inclusion in those collections I found myself discounting and discarding objects that were neither moments nor locations but nevertheless fell into that same category of “nearly but not quite the thing to which everybody would pay attention”. Hence the origin of my third exhibition: an exhibition of objects that were nearly, but not quite. I would include, for example, a sheet of parchment from the workshop of Leonardo Da Vinci. But it would be a blank sheet that he had never used. Had he done so, it could have been as famous as any work of art, and perhaps the sheet that was above it in the pile in the studio is now behind bullet-proof glass in the Louvre. But this sheet is one on which Da Vinci never drew. And here is a roll of unexposed film found amongst the effects of a famous photographer: had he lived longer, this would have been the roll he used next. Here is a type writer that Hemingway did not use, but would have done if things had been different that year. Here is the car that James Dean did not drive. Here is a piece of fabric from one of the flags that they did not raise that day on Iwo Jima. The title of this third exhibition: “Almost”.

Nowadays, everyone is a curator. I shall curate these moments, places and objects that are not quite. But they may be hard to find. They may be difficult to notice.

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Haiku, again

Starting another round of trying to get students to try writing Haiku as a way of honing their observation and reporting skills, I looked back here to see whether I had said anything about this exercise previously. The entries are quite well hidden, so I thought I’d re-post some of the text here so it would be together in one place… in case any of the students seek it out!

“One of the hearts of Geography is the search for a sense of place: the quest to identify, capture, record and represent the essence of a location. Japanese haiku poetry does much the same thing. Sometimes at the scale of a bug under a leaf, sometimes at the scale of a view to the distant horizon, Haiku try to capture in a succinct and tightly formalised way the essence of what a geographer would call a landscape.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot recently about using haiku in teaching. Haiku are great for encouraging concise and precise writing, and they are also good for training students to look carefully and notice things. I spoke to the 3rd-yrs on Friday about how the best way to make yourself really look closely at something was to give yourself the task of representing it or recreating it in some way. For example, by making a model, doing a drawing… or writing a poem. Look really hard and write what you see. The first attempt will be trivial, so look deeper… repeat until you are seeing things you never noticed before. I really like the idea of Geographical Haiku. Yes, of course all genuine Haiku are geographical in that they refer to an aspect of the natural environment, but I’d really like to develop haiku that refer to a specific location and could be geotagged on google earth. I could set students an exercise to write about their home area, or a place they visited, and plot the poems up onto a big map. May be such a thing already exists in google earth… may be one of my excellent students will read this, seek it out and let me know. Meanwhile I put a few up on twitter now and again.”

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I’ve been interested for a long time in the way everything is connected. Douglas Adams’ “Total Perspective Vortex” extrapolated from a small piece of fairy cake to reconstruct the entire universe, complete in every molecule. You could start with anything (I always cite Mahler’s 6th Symphony) and, beginning with one small question about one small part of that thing, from connection to connection work your way outwards and eventually reach the total sum of human knowledge and experience. Sometimes, as we look around us and see all the pieces reaching out to each other, the world looks like a maelstrom of whirling connections. Yesterday one flashed past that I thought I’d write down as a little example.

When I turn on the engine in the van the radio comes on automatically and I, automatically, reach to turn it off since it is usually playing some dreadful CD that Debbie has left in. Yesterday I reached to turn it off but stopped because it was playing radio, and a song I liked. “Mahler?” You ask? No. Cyndi Lauper. Girls just want to have fun. I can like that as well as Mahler, can’t I? Well anyway, that was what happened, and I drove off happily listening to Cyndi Lauper. Hadn’t heard it for years. Later that day a student submitted their Inspirational Landscapes project online for me to mark. (By coincidence, I had mentioned my “extrapolating from Mahler” project and read to them the bit about the fairy cake. I even read them some Proust, who had a fairy cake all of his own, extrapolating from a dunked madeleine to a lifetime’s memories.  I didn’t play them Cyndi Lauper. The student submitting the work was the only person in the class who could count the beat to Solsbury Hill (don’t you love that 7-time beat?). But that isn’t the connection). Part of the student’s submission was a YouTube video that they had created, and when the video ended, YouTube automatically (no, things happening automatically isn’t the connection) YouTube automatically offered to play me another video uploaded by the same student (here it comes), and the video – nothing to do with the Geography project – was that student playing keyboard and singing… “Girls Just Want to have Fun”.

Writing this post, and thinking of the student who unwittingly inspired it I am reminded how much of what I’ve written here and elsewhere has been inspired by my students, usually without them knowing it. Pasted to the wall of my downstairs toilet as wallpaper amongst the mouldering front pages of many of my papers is the front page of an article I wrote for the journal Progress in Physical Geography in 1997. The article was about how much progress was being made in the science of glaciers and how much new information was being published every year. I started the article with an anecdote about a student. That student, in response to a start-of-course questionnaire in which I asked the group what they wanted to learn – what they wanted to know – had written “I want to know it all”, and I took that as a starting point from which I expanded to, and expounded upon, a broad sweep of information and the unlikelihood than anybody would ever “know it all”. The student who wanted to know it all was called Cara. I had never heard that name before I encountered that student. At the end of the section of the paper where I told her story I mentioned some obscure data set and said “perhaps I should send that data to the girl who wanted to know it all”. Reading that again now I realise she almost certainly never saw that paper or realised that her quick comment on a small questionnaire in a big class of students would lead to something being published in an article, let alone that it would still be fresh and relevant in my personal maelstrom of connections 15 years later. And that’s the starting point for another project: we can never know what will stick. We never know what impacts the smallest things we do might have. We never know who notices what. This year’s student will probably never guess that I saw her singing Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Perhaps I should send her a link to this blog.

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My colleagues on the social / cultural side of Geography frequently use the word “turn” to describe changes in attitude or emphasis within the discipline. They talk about the “cultural turn” or the “feminist turn” or the “mobility turn” to refer to points in the history of the subject where attention turned towards those themes or issues. I take their use of “turn” to be similar to what I have always referred to in science as a “paradigm shift”: a change in the basic outlook of a discipline based on a fundamental shift in core knowledge or philosophy. That term comes from the work of the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who wrote a book called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” in 1962 in which he differentiated between periods of “normal science” when most people are working within a particular paradigm, and periods of revolution or “paradigm shifts” when either gradual progress or a new development within a subject makes traditional approaches untenable and causes people to start working under a new set of assumptions. The history of science is full of these points.

I am currently doing research for a new book that I am writing about glaciers, and just now I’m in a section focusing on the history of the science of glaciers. My book is aimed at a wide audience, but I also want it to be relevant academically within the discipline of Geography, since that discipline has been at the centre of all my professional writing. The early history of glacier science provides an outstanding example of a paradigm shift, and I have been exploring the idea that this particular paradigm shift could be referred to as a “glacial turn” that affected broad areas of science and of wider culture in the middle of the 19th century. I am thinking that it might be interesting to include some discussion of that notion in my book.

In the early part of the nineteenth century it was not widely recognised that glaciers had ever been much more extensive than they are now. It was widely believed that Noah’s flood from the Bible was the last major event to affect our landscape. People did not imagine there had ever been an “ice age”. Then around 1840 a man called Louis Agassiz brought together ideas from a small number of earlier observers and unleashed upon the geological world the astonishing idea that huge areas of the planet had at one time been buried beneath enormous ice sheets, and that the landscapes that we see around us now in places like the UK and North America were created by ice in that glacial age. The “Glacial Theory” was a huge idea, and gave a completely new perspective to our view of how the world works and how landscapes are created. Looking back at that period now, one remarkable thing is how quickly and how deeply this new idea penetrated not only geology but science, and popular culture, more generally. The sudden realisation that glaciers came and went over the face of the planet through time and that the landscapes of the “civilised world” had been created by glaciers of which the scars were still clearly visible, changed our view of many things. When Charles Darwin published his ideas about evolution (another paradigm shift!)  in “The Origin of Species” in 1859, he cited Agassiz’s recent work and used the idea of the “Glacial Period”, and the climate change that it implied, in his own argument.

Our understanding of the physical world changed abruptly at that point when Louis Agassiz demonstrated that glaciers had once been much bigger and had changed the landscape in an enormous, ancient ice age.  Our perspective on our own position in the world also changed. Our recognition of the very fact of glaciers and ice ages, what I refer to as our “noticing” of glaciers, has a massive impact on our view of the world both in a physical, practical sense and in an almost metaphysical sense of grounding our perception of our place in the world. It gives us a new context. A world with glaciers in it gives us a particular way of recognising both scale and fragility in the environment, and that recognition is reflected strongly in our image of ourselves within that environment.  On the one hand glaciers and ice sheets make us feel very small. On the other hand, our impact upon them shows us to be very big in our ability to affect the planet. This evolving view has been reflected in the increasing sophistication of the way glaciers have featured in art and, recently, in international environmental politics. We live, therefore, not only in a physical ice age (an age when there are glaciers present on earth) but also, and only for the last century or so, in a cultural ice age, in other words a period when humanity notices, recognises, and ascribes physical and cultural importance to glaciers. We live in an age where glaciers affect our view of the world, and of ourselves.

Whether from a purely scientific perspective, or from a perspective that includes cultural, psychological or even metaphysical points of view, the paradigm shift represented by Agassiz’s promotion of the Glacial Theory from about 1840 can therefore be considered as what some of my colleagues would call a “turn”. I have recently been reading work by Adriana Craciun that refers to the “Oceanic Turn” in the 18th century. I think in my book I may find myself referring to the “Glacial Turn” of the 19th Century.

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Something I tried in a tutorial this week went down quite well with the students. It was part of my series of tutorials geared towards helping students to see the world differently, to realise that there are different ways of looking at the world, and to appreciate that what you see depends on how you look. In previous sessions I had them look out of the window and tell me what they saw, and I got them to read “The Little Prince” and think about what St Exupery would see when he looked out of a window, and I talked to them about how the observations that we make when we look at the world depend on  our expectations of what the world should look like. For example, I get them to think about how we start by looking at things (making observations, collecting data, noticing the world around us), then move on to interpreting those things we’ve seen, and finally arrive at conclusions or answers or what we might call a ‘view of the world’. So ‘data plus interpretation leads to conclusion’. Or ‘looking plus thinking leads to opinion’. Then I get them to consider, looking back to the left hand end of that sequence, how we decide what to measure, what data to collect, what to look at, what to notice. They agree that it will in fact depend on what I had put at the right hand end of the sequence: our view of the world. So then they realise it’s not a line but a cycle. We then consider whether it is a closed loop where our views will never change because we only notice things that our viewpoint leads us to consider relevant, or a spiral where noticing new things causes us to develop our view enabling us to notice more new things. We end up agreeing that we need to open our minds to new viewpoints to enable us to notice new things and break out of our closed loop of myopic ignorance. This can then lead on to discussions about how we acquire “new views” and I introduce the outrageous idea that the students might do some reading. So, anyway, what was it that went down well this week? It was when I tried to illustrate my point using a camera. I asked the students in little groups to plan a photograph of the tutorial. They all came up with sketches of people sitting round the table in front of the whiteboard under the windows. ‘Great,’ I said, ‘so now take the photo’ and I handed them a camera. But the camera I passed round had a 300mm telephoto lens attached. Looking through that camera the best they could see was a corner of somebody’s head, or a fraction of a chair. It was fun (for me and for them) as they realised that  their vision of the tutorial had been based entirely on their “usual” perspective, and seeing it through this new lens they saw a whole different set of things. They couldn’t photograph the whole group or the whole room, so they started noticing much smaller things, noticing little details of things. They started looking at the room in a whole different way because I forced them to a different viewpoint.

So, next week perhaps the wide-angle lens? No, that’s exactly what they’ll be expecting.

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