22 March 2014

Common Knowledge, Part 1

In the early years of the formation of my identity, I was told that
  • I have no common sense.
  • I'm smart but not pretty.
  • I'm overly-sensitive.
The pronouncements were usually expressed to bestow disappointment, ridicule or anger so I understood them together as a diagram of my imperfect nature. Thus armed, I set out into the world.

I met beautiful women with no common sense and strong, invulnerable, highly intelligent men and tried to learn something from all of them to fix what was wrong with me.

Eventually, I collapsed beneath the burden of this unforgiving self-identity and found redemption in therapy. Under the protective wings of a skilled and loving therapist, I took another look at my life and myself and the World as I saw it and modified the early identity sketch.

In the main, what I came to acknowledge was the subjectivity of human assessment. What impressed my mother as obvious and indisputable aspects of my nature were interpreted very differently by other people. I also learned that time and circumstance impact the eye of the beholder.  "Fun and exciting" Los Angeles becomes "never again" after one is robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight.

With perception being so subjective and changeable and impermanent, I wondered if there was such a thing as "common" sense? What is "common knowledge"?

The concepts are distinct in my mind:  "sense" is inborn, requires no instruction, is akin to instinct but includes a cognitive aspect where it involves what I'll call "primitive" evaluation of evidence on hand (a process that assumes the presence of "native intelligence," another subjective term...). "Knowledge," on the other hand is acquired or won. It's the result of a computation based on relatively fixed and reliable data. Knowledge can be recorded and stored on a library shelf; it can be shared or taught. Knowledge is specific.

[Note: I have NOT consulted a dictionary for these definitions. As is the general tendency of this blog, I'm telling another story about Alex' Worldview.)

This week, my consideration of "common sense" and "common knowledge" was expanded to include musings on possible connections to concepts like "common decency," "common practice," and "good manners".

I was invited to lead a mini-workshop on "creative process" for upper class students enrolled in a creative writing course at Rust College. To optimize the potential benefit of the workshop we changed venue from their usual classroom to the stage in the auditorium.

The workshop was to begin at the regular class time, 1:00 p.m. At 1:08, with only 4 of 11 students present, the instructor apologized for their tardiness, expressed her confusion about the whereabouts of the missing students and asked whether I wanted to begin without them.

The design of my workshops both resembles and differs from that of a class. For example, there's designation of a "point person" in both --- the teacher in a class setting and the facilitator in a workshop setting -- but the roles are not identical. There is a degree of "I've got the goods and you're here to get them" in both settings but there's nuanced difference in the way the goods are delivered, based on my observations playing both roles and also witnessing both as student and workshop participant.

Teaching delivers information with specificity:  here it is; take it just as I give it -- and you will be tested later. Facilitation delivers ideas with support and encouragement to explore the ideas, manipulate them. Turn them upside down and inside out and discard them ultimately if you like -- there won't be a test on this later.

Both teaching and facilitation carry a lot of love. I enjoy both activities; my body is warm and vitality pulses through me in both roles; my thinking and awareness are keen, shiny, open. The space is charged with possibility and potential. I'm excited. It is when I am teaching and facilitating that I enjoy a rare, clear sense of "hope." In both settings I see myself as the bearer of gifts that I want very much to share.

With teaching, however, I carry the gift as it was passed to me. It's in the original box. It's clear the box has been opened but the wrapping paper and ribbon were not discarded. The original wrapping paper and ribbon and box are integral to the process, though, depending on the subject, their prominence may have diminished somewhat over time. I want students to be aware of the"waves" of tradition and ritual that brought the gift to them -- through me. I want them to notice and remember the past as legacy. I know more gifts will come in the future
and that some of them will not be understood or received fully without the gift I bring today.

In any case, tardiness to a class that meets 4 days a week, that perhaps includes a syllabus or reading list, and is a requisite unit in a degree program that includes formal testing and evaluation can be accommodated more easily than in the one-shot, 90-minute, "special guest" appearance-type design of a workshop. The workshop is an experience and its choreographed design relies almost entirely on sensitive sequencing. Each moment calls forth heightened commitment to Presence and Attention. Participants are invited into experiential moments that flow from and reach toward.

It's impossible to recreate experience. Latecomers enter and join a journey already in progress. They will have an experience but they will be out of sync with the group experience. As a facilitator, a period of rehash becomes necessary with the arrival of each latecomer that was not a part of the initial workshop design and that disrupts the flow of the experiential narrative begun by those who were there when the journey began.

I chose to wait for five or six more minutes to allow stragglers to arrive. When we reached six students in attendance, I opened the workshop.

I warmed quickly to the work that afternoon. The time -- 1:00 p.m. -- fits my biorhythm nicely. The venue -- a lit, proscenium arch stage, empty except for four chairs, baby grand piano in the wings -- felt like home to me. The theme -- "Creative Process" -- has organic, resonant relevance for me personally and professionally. The students were attentive and responsive; they asked great questions and offered soulful commentary during the brief orientation period. They sat, slouched and perched on velveteen drop-seat chairs in the shadowy cavern of the auditorium and I sat cross-legged in spilled-light at the edge of the stage.

After providing a few preliminary ground rules,  I invited them to join me onstage.