Stymied by Semiotics

Sometimes people don’t say what they mean, or don’t mean what they say.

Sometimes it’s because they were taught self-effacing modesty or “not wanting to bother”, or from being euphemistic (saying “passed on” instead of died). Sometimes it’s from embarrassment.

And sometimes, I have NO idea why people say what they say!

My problem is that I am more inclined to straightforward, pragmatic communication, and talking to most others is like conversing in a foreign language.

One evening, my husband asks me, “What would you think of Italian?” Hmn, I remember eating at the last Italian restaurant we went to, and answer, “I don’t feel like having Italian tonight. Mexican sounds good to me, or Chinese.”

We were on the road, discovered that the Mexican place had closed, and he finally told me that he wanted to try out the new restaurant that had opened nearby! I said sure, because their menu could be really different than the other places we have visited.

Apparently he was disappointed because I had ruled out Italian food, and by not going along with his very indirect and implicit suggestion, was (nearly) denying him the opportunity of trying this new place. He took denying his suggestion as something personal, apparently. Once again I have managed to create Grave Disappointment through complete ignorance of what he wasn’t saying.

The thing is, most people do understand this kind of implicit, indirect conversation. It’s the whole mangle of semiotics! The signifier, or thing they are saying, does not literally indicate the signified, or idea they are meaning, and the action they perform does not indicate what they are wanting. Imagine someone gives you a bouquet of red roses, which signify “I love you”. But you are allergic to roses and reply, “Oh, no thanks, I can’t bear being around those.” Person feels rejected.

But I find the symbolism of objects easier to understand than the symbolism of unspoken conversation. Sometimes I catch it, through sheer force of experience. Sometimes I sit there mystified, hoping that something later in the conversation will make things clear. And sometimes I stumble through the conversational dance, feeling like I’m trying to waltz when everyone else is doing the bunny-hop.

I keep reminding him, “Just say what you really mean!”

Blarg! But decades of socialisation are hard to counter.

The Words Got In the Way

I remember being about nine years old (that would have been oh, 1971) when I realized to my utmost horror that because everyone’s experiences are different, that no one will ever understand my words with the exact same “flavor” that I mean them. This shocked me to the core, and I was inconsolable, silently numb for several days.

The whole reverberation only added to my sense of growing isolation. (“They don’t know what I am talking about. They will NEVER know what I am talking about.”) There is a word in Japanese, “yoin”, which means the experiential reverberation that continues to move you after the external stimulus has ceased. That moment was a negative sort of yoin.

My vocabulary (although large for a person of my age) lacked the sufficient abstract and philosophical terminology that would allow me to share my myriads of thoughts, so my failed attempts only served to worsen the angst. Then again, I am not sure how much the people around me, the children, teachers or parents, really tried to understand what I was getting at. Either they did not have the concepts themselves, did not believe a mere child could have such abstract concepts, or did not feel inspired enough to make the effort.

Because of my rearing and education, I (wrongly) perceived this inability to communicate highly abstract thoughts as being stupid, rather than as lack of knowledge. (Just as when I was trying to figure out how to optimize the size of a building one could create from a single sheet of construction paper, I thought I was stupid because I couldn’t do it mathematically. In truth, I couldn’t do it because the calculations I needed required the calculus that I would not study until decades later, rather than the simple arithmetic I had thus far been taught.)

Words are but an approximation, a systematized code to give a mutual “handle” on concepts. Because words are artificial constructs, and each person brings with them a slightly different version of the word, the meanings for words are always created anew, and evolve within the context of the discussion. Both the sender and receive give slightly different interpretations, based upon their ever-changing personal experiences.

Part of what it means to be an intelligent organism is the desire to share experiences with others. Intelligent apes and dolphins communicate things, although on less complex levels*. Humans communicate things not only by words, but also by other forms of expression, such as music, dance, and art. There are some days when any good communication seems a miracle! (Is anyone out there working on that Vulcan mind-meld?)

But when you do find someone of like mind, Oh! but when you do, it is the most amazing thing. The words barely keep up with the tumble of concepts that are flashing back and forth. Yes! They know what I am talking about! Yes! They have thought the same thoughts. Yes! They have seen things with much the same perceptual filters; they have the much the same Umwelt**.

These moments of rare experiential/perceptual connection to another person are a positive sort of yoin. They are yet rare; I can count them on the fingers of one hand. Perhaps finding others of similar neurological bent will increase the incidence for all of us, n’est-ce pas? We are all ever alone — but — I would add that we are able to upon occasion reach beyond our individual alonenesses and connect to others. The utter joy and delight, an almost transcendent sense of epiphany one can find in sharing an understanding with some people can be a profound thing.

But many times I have come off as being stupid or foolish. How do you explain to someone that they really cannot always assign mental processes to the results they see? (I think this is one of the reasons I like entomology; people are less likely to assume they can understand what is going on in the wee brains of “alien” insects; and yes, many insects are even capable of learning.) I cannot tell you how many times people have come off with some entirely off-the-wall assumption about me from what they observe.

I remember an incident from when I was four years old, and they were testing me for entry to kindergarten (my birthday is after the school year has already started, so I was always the youngest). An adult held up a pen and asked me, “What color is this?” I wondered silently to myself, “Does that mean the color of the case of the pen, or the ink inside it?” I could not really see the ballpoint tip to tell. I knew that some pens have colored nibs on their ends to indicate the ink color, but that not all of them do.

Then while I was pondering this, I had a horrifying realisation, “How can she not know what color it is? This is a grown-up!” I was shocked and concerned and trying to think of a rational reason why an adult might not know their colors that I sat there, silent and not answering. It’s not that I did not know my colors, but rather I could not figure out why she would not, and why on earth she would be asking me. I was just a child! Children don’t help adults – other adults do. Why wasn’t she talking to the other grown-ups?

Of course I was being clueless as usual, and did not realize that she was testing me; I took the interaction at face value. Meanwhile, this person told my mother that I was a foolish child who did not know her colors, and then she used the pen to write something down on a form. Fortunately my mother was there to assert that I did indeed know them, and once it was explained to me what I was supposed to be doing, I rattled off all sorts of color identities about objects, including pink and grey and beige.

In the end, it’s our respective perceptions that allow and limit communication. When we fail to do so, we must always realize that we all carry highly individual conceptual sets.

To borrow a line from a song, “I wanted to tell you that I love you, but the words got in the way.”

* Many animals (including insects) can both learn and communicate, but are not considered intelligent because they cannot apply the learning in novel ways to new situations.

** The Umwelt is a term coined by von Uexküll in the 1920s, meaning the unique sensory world of an organism — the stimuli to which an animal is responsive in a given motivational state; contrast to the Merkwelt, the set of all environmental factors that are important to the species, whether or not they can actually be perceived.

The Trouble With Tolerance

“When bigotry is the dominant view, it sounds like self-evident truth.”
-Harriet McBryde Johnson

Last Sunday someone mentioned something (which details escape me now) but in the dialog was one word that reverberated, rolling around my head noisily long after the event:  Tolerance.

Gee, it sounds like such a good thing, right?

Obviously it’s better than intolerance, where people are actively against nonconformity, even violently so.  Intolerance is all about bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, et cetera.  In contrast, tolerance means that the different, the Other, is allowed.  Those that are tolerated are to not be actively hurt, or discriminated against, or “converted” through sheer force or coercion into dire dilemmas of horrible-choice or even-worse-choice.

At best there is the decision that although there is not agreement as to the validity of someone else’s differences, the existence of that difference is still allowed.

The trouble with tolerance is that it can imply a bad thing that someone else is merely “putting up with”.

Mere tolerance can mean that the Other is actually wrong and unacceptable.  We all feel good because we’re being so modern and virtuous and civilised because we tolerate it.  Not like those other people in whatever-country, or those who practice whatever-religion.  We don’t tolerate intolerance.  Er, whatever.

This concept really bears consideration.  There’s an inherent conflict.

In truth, I don’t accept everything people believe or do.  I heave a big sigh with the American Civil Liberties Union ends up defending a Ku Klux Klan group the right to stage an event.  I hate the KKK’s ideals; it was very disturbing to find a recruitment flyer on my driveway with my morning newspaper some years ago.  There is no tolerance for any who harm others, especially children.  However, when considering things like free speech issues, I realise that I could just as easily be amongst a group that the mainstream does not want to tolerate, because I have been fatally Othered by some opinion or identifying trait I own.

And yet I still welcome acceptance of inborn differences amongst people, all those little quirks of genetics that determine our appearances and physical and mental abilities and neurologic tics and our loves.  I want to go even beyond that; I cherish the multitudes of differences, for these are what make us who we are, they are our strengths and blessings.  Diversity is just as important in the human gene pool as in any other part of ecosystems.

While teasing out this tangled mess, I find that at least for now, an essential kernel remains:

Appreciation for all kinds of people, and tolerance for the rights of different beliefs and opinions.

‘Nuf said

(someone else’s vehicle)

 

 

The Dreaded Betweens

I’ve never found an official name for this. A small, very informal survey indicates that it happens to AD/HD people and autistics, if not others as well. Maybe it will sound familiar to you, too. Let me know.

I’ve always just thought of this distinctive funk as The Betweens once I had been through enough cycles to see the overall trend. But The Betweens is more than just your “get-up-and-go done got-up-and-went”.

It’s somewhat analogous to the manic ups and depressive downs of bipolar, but doesn’t really function the same way. The Betweens is much more inwardly focused. I would expect that having The Betweens premenstrually or in combination with some other cyclic physiological thing could definitely make it worse.

The Betweens are evidenced when the intense GoGoGo from having a new perseveration (or a new slant on a favorite old one) has worn off. Sometimes it’s the body and sometimes it’s the mind. Or maybe it’s both, and you feel about as useful as a beached jellyfish and as brainy as a slug.

You can’t keep your train of thought on track. You can’t remember squat, which is frustrating as hell for a mind that’s used to going brilliantly full-tilt. The ennui is horrible, and like a junkie searching for old dribs and drabs of xir favorite fix, you schlump from staring at the dregs of one old obsession to another, staring dumbly at piles of hobby materials or over-loaded bookshelves, and not even sure why you have these things sitting around, or possibly even what you did with them.

It’s not just problem of, “I had a brain; I miss my brain”. The pang of nostalgia that seeps across the heart is neither for a particular time nor a place, but is for the feeling of having been in some manner intensely connected with the universe, and then someone has cruelly cut the umbilicus. (And if this is what “normal” feels like, I don’t want it!)

You ooze out of bed, and once up, seem to be crashing into wall corners and tripping on shoelaces and all those other entertaining tricks, but even more so than usual.

You’re disoriented and distractible, and staying focused on a complex task like driving a vehicle requires much more concentration than it ought to. Your adept has turned into un-dept, or some such thing.

Even worse is being in graduate school and having a bad case of the Research Betweens, ugh! Academia is rife with stories of students who achieved all their coursework and finished collecting and analysing all the data, and then got started on their theses but never finished the writing, thence never finishing their degrees. One doesn’t have to have been in such circumstances to have done this, but it sure is easy to understand. This is the sort of situation that makes up aspie nightmares, right up there with job interviews and cocktail parties!

In a way, The Betweens is like a craving. There probably is some kind of positive-feedback (dopamine?) loop when one is in a long perseveration “zone”. Once you crash out, there’s the withdrawal. It’s kind of a rebound depression from a sustained high. C’est normal, but the trick is recognising it, “Oh yeah, this is just the cool down / recharging stage”.

In a charitable moment, I suppose I could say that the Betweens are an opportunity for recharging one’s batteries. Then again, in real life I need to be spot-on, day after day, and therein lies the problem. Thankfully, The Betweens does go away. But never, never soon enough! ::shudder::

I probably would have written some Blues lyrics about, “Being in The Betweens” except that when you have them — you can’t ! (Oy, the irony)

The closest thing I have found that works to tripping the Restart button is to do some heavy, simple exercise that takes several hours to complete.

Alas, it usually takes me a few days of seeping down into The Betweens before enough stray thoughts coalesce to generate the realisation that, “Er, I am once again suffering from the Betweens!” And then of course, I have to retain that realisation and lurch myself into doing something about it. (Because part of The Betweens is the Nomothetic Fallacy, which explains that merely naming a problem is not the same thing as actually solving it.)
::sigh::

Normally this is when I would go outdoors and do a couple days of heavy-duty gardening.

Woe is me if the world outside is covered in ice. There is no indoor work that is analogous. Cleaning out closets is much too mentally taxing, and I have learned the hard way that I would be way too likely to do something terribly foolish, like throw away boxes full of materials that are highly necessary when in another frame of mind. Painting walls might run close, except for all the blasted furniture-moving and hole-spackling and sanding and careful brushing-in the edges.  I don’t have the mental energy for this prep-work when I’m in The Betweens.

But when I can, shovelling, or raking up thousands of leaves, or turning over the compost heap only requires a few stray neurons for the task, and are such gross motor skills that I am not a threat, even to myself. (Despite that, I bought a leaf rake with plastic tines, just to be sure — one does get wiser with age).

With all this therapeutic manual labor, the brain mushes along lazily for a couple hours, and eventually the rhythm of the labour asserts itself. For some reason, all of my re-set activities end up being those that require me to rock back and forth, but unlike rocking in my chair, this is whole-body rocking. The fact that I am equipped with a rake to collect a pile of leaves, or a pitchfork to manœuvre a heap of dead plant materials into a more aerated mass, is mere camouflage.

By the time I am into the soaking-off-the-dirt-in-the-tub stage, the endorphins begin to kick in and my brain is mellowed out from the intellectual vacation. Trickles of concepts begin to flow again. Give me another day, and I will have reached critical mass once more, and be lit afire!

 

Being the Class Project: Reflections upon False Inclusion

Helping the awkward new student seemed like a good idea, so why did it make everything worse?

In fourth grade I changed schools between the third and fourth quarters. I not only changed schools, but also entirely different states, as my mother took my sister and I with her to live with Grandma for a few months. (I do not know the circumstances behind this; adults did not feel the need to explain things to children.) Undoubtedly it was to be to my benefit, because my initial fourth-grade teacher was a poor example of the profession, and I did not mind leaving her classroom. Another benefit to me was leaving the cohort of students I had been with for the past few years; I hoped the new students would be “nicer”. Unfortunately, I was an odd little girl and apparently went through life with a sign on my back that read “clueless,” as I was to be picked upon where-ever I went.

All transfer students face the same challenges of adjusting to different neighborhoods, buildings, teachers, textbooks, rules, and grading schemes. Apparently it did not take long for the teacher to catch onto the fact that I was not adjusting and making friends in the hoped-for manner. Presumably a request was put to my classmates to help me by offering me encouragement. I have no idea how this was instituted; like many of the subtler or implicit social things, the effort was completely off my radar.

One of the reinforcement mechanisms the teacher had was a “warm-fuzzy” type box for the students to drop in anonymous notes praising each other for various activities. These were read aloud by the teacher once a week. After I had been there for a couple of weeks there was an abrupt flurry of missives complimenting me on my efforts at spending time on reading or being helpful in my classroom duties. I found such approval odd, for we all had the same duties, and reading was simply something I enjoyed. Why should someone be commended for having fun? Actually, I found such praise to be entirely unrewarding, and the realization of that sat uneasily upon my young mind. I did not have the concept of “hollow praise” in my mental world yet, but I knew that although the words given to me were accurate, they lacked any semblance of real meaning. If the immediate purpose of this exercise was to boost my self-esteem or to comfort me, it truly did not work. Rather, it made me more anxious with the indescribable angst about how I was “supposed” to feel, and added to the ever-growing concern and unease about what I was “doing wrong”.

Moreover, if the long-term goal of this exercise was to initiate friendships between myself and the other students, it likewise did not work. Friendship is usually a natural result of being together for periods of time, of having similar backgrounds, circumstances and interests. Given the numbers of students in the classroom, the chances of at least one or two becoming my friend would have seemed likely. However my scholastic aptitudes may have been erratic and wanting, I was obviously a socially awkward child. Not only did I lack the physical graces necessary to playground games, I also lacked the interpersonal graces that were becoming much more important among ten-year olds. However, I was not just a clumsy nine-year old girl, I also had invisible differences that handicapped my social abilities. I had trouble recognizing people, and it took me a long time to figure out ways of reliably identifying them. My conversations lacked the kind of give-and-take where one speaker offers the other person conversational openings. I had no sense between when people where done with a sentence or done talking, and was prone to interrupting (I still have trouble with this at times). For all I had a rich imagination, I did not have the intuitive sense of what the stories were supposed to be for “Barbie Gets Married” or other doll games; I derived more pleasure from arranging dollhouse furniture than in doing anything with the figures.

I was much more interested in learning about and discussing nonfiction, and my particular passion that year was the fascinating realm of mysteries, detectives, spies and secret codes. These were not however, the interests of most of the other girls who prattled interminably about horses, pop music, or Betty and Veronica comics. They instead were developing interests in being stewardesses when they grew up, or in reading and endlessly emoting over pre-teen romance stories. My mother complained, “Why can’t you be more normal?” The girls told me that I sounded like the Professor from the Gilligan’s Island television show and laughed at me. I could not figure out why that was not a compliment; he was the only sensible person in the show!

Once again, I found more pleasure – and the opportunity to recharge my energies for the rest of the school day – by spending all recess on the swings or reading a book. “Oh, you don’t want to do that,” the teacher told me, nudging me away from where I was sitting leaning against a tree trunk and reading my latest book (a library volume on how FBI agents caught counterfeiters) “Go and have fun with the other children.”

The efforts to include me failed on several fronts, but they all had the same ulterior mode of operation. Each of the different manœuvres relied on trying to create friendships by having the previously-bonded group of students “help” the newcomer.

Oh, they tried to help. Two or three girls made me their special case for a couple of weeks, until they tired of the exercise and dropped me from their attentions. They dutifully tried to help me integrate into their little play groups, but it was quickly apparent that I was the unplayable Old Maid in the card deck. Given a choice, eventually no one wanted to add me to their games; my presence was a burden whether on the ball field or the skipping-rope line. The determination of these few students was probably encouraged by the teacher (and other staff members), and undoubtedly they thrived on the social rewards of being good junior helpers who would care for someone needy. If nothing else, my being the inferior “other” just strengthened the existing social bonds between them.

Unfortunately, caring for was not the same thing as caring about. If I complained to the teacher about being put into awkward situations from being pushed into playgroups where neither I nor the children wanted my presence, my concerns and discomfort were dismissed. “You should thank them for doing that for you,” the teacher told me, “They’re letting you play with them. You should appreciate that.” But when I played with them, I was made fun of for my inability to do things the right way. I could not understand why I should express thanks to others for the opportunity to be ridiculed.

Ah, ridicule … I was deficient in any sort of concern for fashion fads, and gave scant thought to my appearance; putting on clean clothes and more or less brushing my hair was adequate in my book. Being tactily defensive, I could not stand to let anyone mess with me. The problem wasn’t who was doing it, but what they were doing. When my mother brushed my hair she would order, “Stop being so squirmy! Why do you have to be so difficult?” If I complained that being handled hurt, she dismissed my protests, “This doesn’t hurt – stop being so whiney!” Even collar tags on store-bought clothes drove me nuts. “Just ignore it,” Grandma told me, “you’re being too sensitive.” (In turn, Grandma could never stand the feel of cotton balls that came in aspirin bottles, but somehow that was different.)

The girls tried to help me look more girly by doing cute things with my hair, but my long, limp tresses were not amenable to being braided or to holding barrettes. The hairdressing felt like an attack upon my body, a strange sort of help-attack. This activity was especially bad because I was no longer even a person but rather a living salon dummy that needed fixing up. There was a strange lack of personal boundaries; they could touch me but I was not allowed to touch them in like manner, which I could not comprehend. Worse, I was not allowed to protest this inequality, and they chided me, “Hush now; hold still and be a good girl. We’re only trying to help you.” And there I was, compelled by everyone important, that I should coöperate and make friends. “Don’t be a cry-baby. You want to be pretty, don’t you?”

Help was apparently something that is done to you and for you; I was the passive recipient for help. They were strangely disempowering, these activities that were ostensibly for my benefit. They certainly did nothing to integrate me into the student body. Instead of improving my own grooming abilities, the whole “fix up Andrea” scene only served to further socially disable me. Demonstrating their superior hairdressing abilities not only affirmed their capacities for following the proper rôles, but also strengthened their memberships in the clique with all that social grooming behavior.

Together, my disinclination for being swayed into primping, and my inability to be socially coerced into behaving normally, had serious affects upon my acceptance into the social milieu of the schoolyard and neighborhood. I was poor at “passing” and although my differences were not obvious at first glance, they eventually piled up like snowflakes obscuring the scenery. People dislike it when someone manages to pass for a while, because the majority then feels that they have been deceived. I was the odd one out, but unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, did not yet have a special talent that would earn me begrudging tolerance for being useful in my oddity.

Their attempts to normalize me repeatedly failed, and I bore the given responsibility for that failure. It was my fault that I had problems; I just needed to “try harder” to fit in and be a fully functioning member of the scholastic social scene. The hidden promise was that if I managed to overcome whatever obstacles were in my path, I would be accepted. However, the true obstacles I had to overcome were not intrinsic, but due to the others’ lack of acceptance of me as myself. As Charlie Brown lamented in the Valentine’s Day cartoon special: “I know nobody likes me; why do we need a holiday to emphasize that?”

I knew there was something terribly wrong with this entire paradigm, but did not understand it well enough to identify the problem, much less to effectively protest against the dreadfulness of it. Unfortunately, this was only fourth grade. There was much worse bullying and sexual harassment in the years ahead of me.

C’est Normal: The Enabling Environment

It was quite a while before we realized that aspie-kid was more than a trifle unusual. Part of that was not denial, but rather the mental yardsticks employed at home. An aspie kid with parents who have diverse disabilities doesn’t really stand out. (The neurotypical kid once joked about feeling left out for not having any kind of exceptionality. “You were speech-delayed,” I offered, but our dear loquacious English major pretended to not be mollified.)

For example, Aspie kid has some minor sensory issues, and has always been particular about not wanting to wear anything but soft, loose clothing. So what? Who doesn’t have clothing preferences? Aspie kid doesn’t like spicy foods, and even in high school will eat “naked noodles” (pasta without sauce) more often than not, and is quite content with plain white sticky rice. Hardly a crisis; as far as I can tell, teenagers’ natural forage is pizza, and as a subspecies, doesn’t really require an extremely broad diet beyond what’s required for nutritional balance. Only one style of nubbly hairbrush is acceptable to the kid (natural bristles are intolerable), so there’s no telling if the long hair thing is another sensory issue about not wanting to get haircuts. But hair elastics are cheaper and much less hassle than regular trips to the salon anyway, so no complaints here.

The extended family did note the disinclination to join into the chit-chat in favor of hanging quietly on the edge of the gathering. But what this child lacked in mobs of kids visiting our back yard to play has certainly been made up for in a steadfast friendship with a particular pal, which friendship has lasted more than a decade.

In later years the teenager’s bedroom floor became the stereotypical mess of clean & dirty clothes and books and snack wrappers et cetera (once again, heavy on the et cetera), but we have to find a certain charm with the periodically-resurfacing habit of lining up objects along shelves – there may be snack dishes piling up, but the computer accessories are tidy!

The other part of not immediately seeing the offspring’s exceptionalities is that they didn’t particularly stand out because we have an enabling home environment. I don’t mean “enabling” in the pathological sense, but rather that home life is designed to reduce problems on a variety of levels.

Dad is hard of hearing, so the children grow up reading television captions. This certainly seems to have aided reading and vocabulary skills, and reduces comprehension problems for those of us with Auditory Processing Disorder. Well, at least when we’re watching television. Mixing up people with hearing impairment and APD at the dinner table can lead to some incredibly recursive conversations as we verify and correct what’s being communicated. Text messaging (as a replacement for phoning each other with voice messages) was just made for families like ours.

For the teachers, yet another child who repeatedly has trouble remembering to finish or turn in assignments, and who loses winter coats et cetera (heavy on the et cetera) isn’t rather notable. (If the jigglyness doesn’t include interrupting the class, the teachers won’t have time to worry about it.) Thankfully this was the second child, so the ADHD mom had time to figure out some coping strategies of her own for keeping track of objects and tasks, and started working on them with the kid. Of course, dad despairs of the two of us ever sitting through an entire movie or television show without popping up for something-or-another. But gee, isn’t that why the Pause button exists?

In the natural environment of the home, our respective disabilities are relatively minor. Sometimes dad doesn’t hear people calling for him, once in a while the grilled cheese sandwiches get overbrowned because Mom gets distracted, and periodically the lawn gets shaggy because the kid is busily perseverating upon some obscure detail of computer gaming. When all else fails, you send the kid to track down dad and let him know that mom’s has finished making a fresh batch of sandwiches and it’s time to eat. The grass will of course, still be there tomorrow morning.

Techniques & Tips from a “Professional Student”

It’s too easy for blogging to end up as nothing more than a series of rants, so here’s something positive.

It’s that time of year when millions of people (leastwise, those in the northern hemisphere) are starting new school years. As someone who tutors (other) students with ADD and learning disabilities, I thought I’d share a bevy of helpful ideas I’ve scraped together over the years.

GETTING READY TO READ

Put the material into the Big Picture. Before starting a chapter/ module/ unit, review your syllabus to see how the content of this one fits within the logical flow of the previous unit, and how it might be important to the next unit. This helps the material make more sense and seem less like a giant pile of loose facts.

Read the textbook backwards.
Start with the Summary in the back of the chapter; this is the “TV Guide” version to what the chapter is about, so you know what you’re heading into before you dive into all the excruciating details. Read over the new terms in the Glossary, so when you encounter them in the text you won’t have those unintelligible speed-bumps that interrupt your understanding of the reading.

This is helpful if this subject is entirely new to you and you have little or no background in the concepts and terminology of this particular field of study.

From the first day of class, create a personal glossary of new terms and their definitions. This is imperative if you are starting a new field of study because you will soon find yourself in possession of a swarm of new words for which you are responsible. Trying to look up a word for its definition by flipping through masses of notes, handouts and textbooks only slows you down and makes you frustrated. Staring into space, pacing, rocking or banging your head do not aid in remembering new terms, so having that personal glossary will give you a ready list to access. Don’t forget to add helpful tips to your definitions, such as cautions about similar-sounding words that you might confuse, or terms with complementary or opposite meanings.

This is especially helpful if you are slow at recalling words, or have difficulties with spelling.

Block off distracting printed material with a mask. Use a half sheet of thin cardboard, a 3/4 sheet cut into an “L” shape, or two blank index cards to mask off distracting graphics, or simply to block off everything but the single question, objective, or paragraph you need to focus upon.

This is helpful if you are someone who is easily distracted by fascinating pictures, or if you have reading difficulties.

TAME THE PAPER TIGER

Assign a particular color to each class. I like to have the binder match the textbook color, so when I’m getting things together for class I only have to grab “two red things”. After the test, keep the notes and handouts in the colored binder or manilla folder. Use that color of ink to mark due dates for assignments and test dates on your calendar. Use that color of manilla or pocket folder to keep all the stray bits of useful stuff you are collecting for a report/project – having that special “parking place” will help organize and reduce the “file by pile” mess on your desk, floor, table, window ledge and other random surfaces…

Buy a hole punch with a trap. The trap collects all the “dots” so they don’t litter the floor. A 3- or 4-hole punch (depending on whether you use 8.5″ x 11″ or A4 paper) is vastly easier than a single-hole punch, as it not only reduces the number of clenches you have to perform, but also because it makes hole spacing that is perfectly even for the binder. Hole-punch all of your handouts and put them into the binder with your notes, so the two can live in wedded bliss.

Buy several packages of index dividers so you can separate the different chapters/units in your binder and more quickly flip through them for studying.

Make liberal use of colored sticky-notes. These are the greatest invention since the microwave oven! They will save tremendous amounts of time from having to endlessly flip through textbook, lab manual, handout, and note pages to track down important information.

Use colored sticky-notes to mark where important graphs, lists, charts, and diagrams are located in the textbook – write a key word on the external, flagging end of the sticky.

Use different colors of sticky-note for different chapters/modules/units, to make studying easier when you have tests that come after you have begun the next chapter/module/unit.

Use sticky-notes to mark chapter sections for those classes that skip around a lot within a textbook. If you are only using section 3.2 of a chapter, then you may begin by reading the summary for just section 3.2 of that chapter, but it might also be helpful to briefly review what the rest of the chapter summary has to say, to understand how the ideas in this section are connected to other ideas.

NOTABLE TIPS FOR NOTE-TAKING & STUDYING

Always take notes in black ink. There is nothing more horrifying during Midterm or Final Exams than discovering that a semester’s worth of pencil-written lecture notes has turned into a smeary, unreadable mess. Oh, the horror… Also, some kinds of blue ink are close to “non-photo / non-repro” blue, a color that’s nearly invisible to many photocopiers; this is usually not a problem unless you need to photocopy those notes for any reason.

Always date and/or number your note pages. Of course, if you live a charmed life and never have sudden “gravity fluctuations” in your part of the planet that cause you to drop or spill note papers, or you never own binders that lose their “bite”, then don’t bother. Otherwise, dating the pages lets you keep track of what was lectured on at a particular time (handy if someone asks to borrow your notes from last Tuesday). If you take more than one page of notes per day (which is nearly always) then numbering the pages instead of or in addition to dating them makes it even easier to put spilled pages back to rights.

Title each page.
Even if it’s just by abbreviation, describe the page of notes by the lecture topic, the unit or chapter title. This not only makes it easier to find the right notes when studying for tests, but it also helps you remember what the overall pattern of ideas is during the course of the class across the semester.
Example:
MITOSIS WED 2 FEB p.1

Take notes in two columns: the left side for listing the main idea titles, important names, terms, dates or formulae, and the right side for all the regular details and sentences. If there is a page in your textbook, lab manual or whatever that has a particular graph, chart or listing, write down that page number on the left side as well, as well as a word or two to title why that page number is important. This speeds up your test studying because you can glance through pages of notes to find the one that has the specific information you’re looking for.

Use the Objectives listed in the chapter/unit/module as your study guide for the test, and write out a full answer to each one as though it were a question. Pay attention to key verbs such as Describe, Compare, List, Define or Identify – these can give you an idea of what kind of test question could be asked. Writing these out does two things: it not only helps you self-test your own understanding before you get to the class test, but it also changes your answers from something you have to invent during the test (which is time-consuming) into something you just have to recall during the test (which is much quicker and easier).

Writing out answers to the objectives in full sentences is especially helpful if English is not your first language, and/or if you are slow at remembering words,and/or otherwise have difficulty expressing the knowledge that’s stuck in your head.

DECIMATED BY NUMBERS

Turn lined paper sideways to have ready-made columns for keeping your place-values straight in big arithmetic calculations. Another option is to use green “engineer’s paper” that has graph squares on one side and is blank on the other side, but the graph grid is still somewhat visible on the blank side, and the green tint is more restful on the eyes.

This is especially helpful if your handwriting tends to wander around or slope down a page, and will keep your numbers and decimals in order.

If you are doing mathematical equations or other things that are processes, write out your own set of numbered directions describing how to do the process. For instance, it may not be as obvious to you as it was to the author of the formula that you need to determine the value of “C” before you put the other values into the formula. So in your own directions, you should note “Find the value for “C” by ~ ~ ~” as one of the earlier steps.
Whenever you solve an equation or do a statistical analysis, write out in a complete sentence what the answer to the calculations MEANS in regards to the original problem/story/question given.

These are especially helpful if you are more of a “words” person than a “numbers” person.

If you have several different formulae , make yourself a flow-chart (meaning, a series of decisions) that helps you figure out which one you use for different kinds of circumstances. When you are studying a chapter or doing that day’s homework, it’s obvious which one you need to use – it’s the one you’re learning that day! But come test time, you will need to be able to understand which one you use for each kind of situation.

This is especially helpful if you are one of those people for whom “all the formulae look the same”.

Use name and address labels on everything, and add your phone number or email as well. Put them on your textbooks, lab manuals, various notebooks, calculator, data CD, flash/keychain drive, assorted binders, notepads, calendar-organizer, each piece of art & drafting equipment plus the carrying case, and all the other things that you need to survive as a student, to help guarantee that the person who finds them can help get them back home to you.

This is especially helpful if you are forgetful, distractible, prone to leaving things in various places, and/or are juggling a variety of classes and jobs. (You can imagine why I know this.)

Bibliomeme

Mum-is-thinking tagged me to answer a book survey. My answers are a motley collection, and I think that motley collections are always the most interesting. I’m guessing that people like to read these kinds of meme-tag surveys because they either want to hear how others have loved the same books they have, or else want to hear about books they had not yet (or possibly would not have) encountered, but would also enjoy.

One book that changed my life
I’ll have to take this is “one of many” rather than as “the one with the greatest impact” because surely different books have had done this at different stages in my life. There are a lot of contenders for books that were the first (if not always the best) to open up my knowledge-base to completely new fields of understanding, such as those on AD/HD or autism. Those are valuable in that regard, but more important are the books that give a different kind of insight, looking behind social paradigms to critically analyse the how and why of human interaction.

For the way that humans interact with their environments, Donald A. Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things looks at the problems that bad design causes people, and how people assume that their difficulties are considered to be their fault, rather than bad design. He touches but lightly on the issues of handicap accessibility, and I don’t think he mentions Universal Design at all, but the central message is still the same. My inner geek adores good, useful, imaginative and æsthetic design, and it drives me nutz when tools, machines or environments are badly designed.

For the way that humans interact with medical & emotional health care providers, Paula Kamen’s All In My Head: An Epic Quest to Cure an Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, And Only Slightly Enlightening Headache that describes some of the problems with the medical models of psychology, such as being a problem patient rather than a person with a problem, or the need to find “cures” for everything when instead one can be helped and be healed without being cured.

Strong messages from both of these books.

One book that you’ve read more than once
Who doesn’t have a comfily-tattered set of J.R.R. Tolkien’s four-volume Middle Earth trilogy? (Yes, trilogy means three books, but The Hobbit is part of the Lord of the Rings, and science fiction & fantasy is rife with trilogies composed of more than three volumes.) For my favorite re-read when stuck abed with a nasty virus, I really enjoy Anne McCaffrey & S.M. Stirling’s The City Who Fought. It’s a fun piece of adult science fiction with the well-drawn characters and nitty-gritty techy details and swashbuckling action that make for a engaging read.

One book you’d want on a desert island
Most people like to pack either something really long, or else an extensive practical reference book. But I don’t think that I’d want to be stuck with some interminably long piece of fiction, no matter how well-written, and I’ve probably read enough references over the years that I could eventually solve any manner of functional issues. What I want would be a huge book of blank pages, so I could keep a journal of thoughts about various things. It’s often difficult for me to work out mental explorations without a written medium. I’ll remember or figure out the right knots for lashing together poles, but being able to compose my thoughts is integral to my equalibrium.

One book that made you laugh
Terry Pratchett’s Mort was the first Discworld novel I ever read, and Death is still my favorite character, possibly because he’s so practical and the human world doesn’t always make sense to him. Plus, he talks in ALL CAPS. Soul Music is damn funny, too. I love the puns and unexpected turns in Pratchett’s books.

One book that made you cry
Ebbing & Gammon’s General Chemistry (sixth edition). The authors of this uninspired, heavy tome had an interminable number of equations to solve. I made it through four semesters of chemistry and sweated through this volume for half of them.

One book you wish you had written
Actually, I’m still compiling thoughts for my next book. I don’t tend to dwell on wish-I-had’s.

One book you’re currently reading
I never read just one book at a time, which explains why it takes me so long to finish anything! I just finished Joseph P. Shapiro’s No Pity. I’m furthest into Majia Nadesan’s most interesting Constructing Autism, which I will finish as soon as I remember where the hell I left the book laying about.

Currently my bedside pile contains: Thomas Skrtic’s Behind Special Education, Alfie Kohn’s What Does It Mean to Be Educated?, Kegan & Lahey’s How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communications, Fisher & Shapiro’s beyond reason, and Walter Kauffmann’s translation of Basic Writings of Nietzsche (maybe after finishing the book I’ll be able to spell N’s name without looking it up every time). I had just started on Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene and then my daughter took it back with her to college; bad girl. By default I’m also reading Hardman, Drew & Egan’s Human Exceptionality: School, Community and Family because it’s my current textbook.

One book you’ve been meaning to read
The future pile-by-my-bed: Daniel C. Dennett’s freedom evolves, John H. Holland’s Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity, Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (I think that one may take a study-buddy to gain the most benefit), the Routledge Critical Thinker’s series editions about Gilles Deleuze, Jaques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, Eli Maor’s e: the Story of a Number, and David Darling’s Universal Book of Mathematics. Doubtless there’s more, but that’s what’s on that section of my bookcase.

Tag five other book lovers
Anna, Catana, David, Liam, and Whomever wishes they’d been tagged but felt like they needed some kind of “official” sanction to simply write and post a list!