My favorite books about writing are really books about thinking, and crafting those thoughts into powerful, public form. So, whenever I’m in a thinking thicket — as I was for the development and delivery of my aesthetics/entrepreneurship course this past semester, “The Art of the Arts Venture” — I look for insight in books about writing.
My most recent salvation has come from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing, an extended haiku of a book about clarity, intention, and rigor in the written word (and the thinking behind it). There are a thousand insights in the book, which I can’t convey here (so read it). But what helped me immeasurably in my class was his perspective on noticing, and the powerful forces that discourage or disallow us from noticing the world around us. Says Klinkenborg:
Most people have been taught that what they notice doesn’t matter,
So they never learn how to notice,
Not even what interests them.
Or they assume that the world has been completely pre-noticed,
Already sifted and sorted and categorized
By everyone else, by people with real authority.
And so they write about pre-authorized subjects in pre-authorized language.
To address this challenge in class, we spent a good amount of time learning to notice, and learning what it means to notice clearly and cleanly (being specific, withholding judgment, asking for evidence or detail if you hear what sounds like judgment: “what do you see that makes you say that?”).
In an early class, we did this overtly by looking at a painting together, and working through the Critical Response Protocol I’ve posted about before (we used John Rogers Cox’s painting, Gray and Gold). In turn, I asked each student to share detail, contrast, or technique that they noticed in the painting, and describe it without judgment or conclusion. The process encourages the facilitator to repeat whatever is said, perhaps in different words, and to point to the item being noticed — which both validates the student’s statement, and focuses the attention of the other students on the detail. The process also highlights how individual attention can evolve into collective attention, particularly when judgment is delayed.
In another attempt at “attention boot camp,” I assigned each student an odd or innovative arts initiative to research and then present to the class. Part of the Organization Report required them to share “things worth noticing” about the venture — what it does, how it does it, what’s unique or different. Because many of the organizations were highly unusual in their mission or their methods, the other requirement was to share without judging — without positive or negative conclusions about what the organization did, or how its participants chose to do it.
And yet again, in an Event Assessment assignment, we all attended a free performance at the Kennedy Center. I assigned a long list of questions for each student to reflect upon and respond to — starting with their first search for information about the event, to their travel and approach to the venue, to the performance itself, and through their departure. At each phase, they were prompted to say what they noticed, rather than what they felt or concluded.
There’s much to share about what they noticed, and where it led us in conversation. But through it all, I kept noticing how resonant Klinkenborg’s conclusions were: That most of the students had rarely been asked to notice, hadn’t been taught to notice in noncritical ways, and in some cases hadn’t even known it was okay to notice for themselves.
Also resonant was the tendency toward “pre-authorized subjects in pre-authorized language,” especially when talking about business structures and strategies. An alternate goal for the Organization Report assignment was to disrupt the students’ “pre-authorized” view of what businesses were and what they did, so we could notice more about them.
Noticing seems to be a basic and obvious first step in building aesthetic attention, or in taking any thoughtful action in the world. But I was struck throughout the class how unnatural it has become for my students (and for me) to observe the details around us — clearly, cleanly, with attention and intent. When we do see something, it also seems unnatural not to judge it, or attach it immediately to some larger meaning. Again, Klinkenborg warns us about this tendency:
What you notice has no meaning.
Be sure to assign it none.
It doesn’t represent or symbolize
Or belong to some world theory or allegory of perception.
As I’ve written before, I’m convinced that the road to mastery in cultural management (or many other things) is not about judging more quickly, but rather delaying judgment long enough to perceive clearly. Noticing seems to be the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth stop along the way. So, I will continue the search for and experiment with ways to build this capacity in my students and myself.