Sunday, November 16, 2014

We are Who We Think We are: or, Fake it 'till You Make It

At the end of every semester I host an open-ended Q&A with my English 101 students.  At this time they can ask me any academic related question.  Typically students attempt to push the boundaries here, dowsing for advantages and sniffing out my pet peeves, but such sallies are punctuated by solid queries –the exact kind my optimistic lesson plan predicted.  Foremost among these is the following chicken soup for the troubled English professor’s soul:

“How can I become a better writer?”

Unfortunately, the answer is decidedly unsexy, consistently failing to offer the type of academic panacea the student is after:

“Read more, write more,” I say with a veteran campaigner’s voice.  

If this sounds like more homework, that’s because it is (hence the often constipated look that comes over freshman faces when this advice is proffered.)

The sad truth is, there’s no magic pen, ivory tower shortcut, or clever secret hidden in the teacher’s lounge.  The wholly mundane and unexciting answer, as so often is the case, lies in hard work.  However, buried within this journeyman approach, there may just be a bit of the sorcery students are looking for. 
Aristotle said that “we are what we repeatedly do.”  This grind-it-out methodology –the “read more, write more” advice offered above- results, over time, in competency.  Taken to its extreme (about 10,000 hours, or so) and it can even result in greatness.  Thus, if you want to be a writer, write every day and this slow accumulation will eventually swell into the skill itself –you’ll be a writer. 

But this is modern America, the land of:

And as much as the old and the wise maintain the contrary, it’s hard to knock instant gratification.  So, it helps to offer students some form of incentive, a little pixie dust to speed them along their journey.  It even comes in a pithy, rhyming quote:

Fake it ‘till you make it.

Imagine that you are a writer, an A student, a better person –whatever your goal is, and you’ll become one.  You don’t even have to wait out Aristotle’s slow-build approach or Gladwell’s temporal equation.  It can happen almost immediately.  The key lies in how identity shapes our habits. Consider someone attempting to become a more sympathetic friend.  Rather than asking himself, “how can I become more sympathetic?” he should assume that identity and then pose the less ambiguous question: “what would a sympathetic person do?”  This provides a clearer roadmap and often suggests a plan of action.  See the following syllogism:

Bill is in the hospital.  A sympathetic friend would go visit him.  I’m a sympathetic friend, so I’ll go visit Bill. 

In this fashion, the change is nearly immediate, relying not on a long and proven track record but rather on a moment’s conceptualization.  And the real beauty here is that while this immediate gratification is taking place, there is also a slow accretion happening.  Take 3-4 identity-driven acts of sympathy and suddenly you have a bit of a habit.  Engage in this habit for a while and you develop a reputation.  Continue to build on this reputation and you arrive at Aristotle’s maxim –you’ve become what you’ve repeatedly done; in this case, a sympathetic friend.

This plan of attack can easily be ported to school and supplied in addition to the long-term “read more, write more” advice.  Encourage students to imagine themselves as writers and then apply this identity to their everyday lives.  In so doing, once idle questions can become actionable practices:

“What would a writer be doing right now?”
“Would a writer ignore this mysterious word, or look it up?”
“Does a writer revise and edit?” 
“How does a writer read?”

By adopting the identify of a writer, even (or especially) if it’s initially a false identity, one can effect immediate life changes based on a sort of subconscious mimicry or role-playing.  Once again, thoughts become actions become habits become reality.  Thus is a little magic offered to students, the light brightened and the tunnel shortened.    
Now, imagine yourself as a commentator, and provide some of your own thoughts and ideas below!

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