Sunday, October 25, 2009

Fear and Good Cheer

Many of this week's reflections had a similar ring - blogging is frightening, especially so for the novice who has yet to find his or her own voice. With that, naturally, there was some discussion about others like a potential employer or a graduate admissions committee, who might come back to your blog later and come to some judgment about you based on your blog, because it speaks about you in some way that the normal applications material do not. Some of you said you are modifying your writing a bit as a consequence. That's ok, though my guess is that the worry is about something that is highly improbable. The stories you hear about young people losing a job because of what they've posted on Facebook are not stories where they wrote something thoughtful but of a different ideological bent from their potential employer, who then rejected them for that reason. If we heard stories of that sort, they would speak as poorly about the employer as about the applicant. The stories we do hear about entail an open depiction of debauchery showcased in Facebook, which apart from the behavior itself demonstrates a lack of discretion on the part of the applicant for having posted it. That a potential employer would not want to hire an immature kid with a lack of discretion is reasonable and doesn't speak poorly of the employer at all. In any event, the online writing we are doing for our class lies entirely outside this domain.

Nonetheless, the fear that many of you wrote about is real enough and I believe is grounded in the here and now. It's the sweaty palms and white knuckle variety. It's the type of fear that distracts you from doing other things and makes you feel as if there is an illness within. You don't have to be a psychologist to understand the fear of being naked and on stage, not infrequently the object of our dreams. Everyone is capable of having this sort of dream. I conjecture, without doing a research project on it, that these sorts of dreams are all the more frequent in high achievers, because one obvious reason for the high achievement is that these people as a routine place high and sometimes extraordinary expectations on themselves. In the dream they are both the person who is naked and a member of the audience watching.

If this is even remotely close to what is going on, then one reason for why the blogging is frightening is because it is new. Fear of the new is very real. It is unreal to expect to be very good right off the bat at something that is new. So fear of the new is tied at the hip to fear of failure. What does it mean to fail at blogging? I don't know. Not having clear ground rules about what success and failure is may be part of the problem (er, part of the issue). Maybe my occasional correcting of grammar or word usage is counter productive because it contributes to the fear, if not of that person than of others in the class who read the comments. (Incidentally, I had hoped that somebody would post about the benefit for students of reading my comments about other student posts, but obviously with The Force there is also The Dark Side.)

Students and instructors don't tend to talk about fear very much when we talk about learning, either out of shame or because culturally it seems improper. But it obviously is important and beyond recognizing that, we probably should work through a bit what we think about it, because it will have bearing on how the our class functions for the rest of the semester and it will also have bearing on the recommendations we come up with as part of the class project. In the rest of this post, I'm going to give a start in this direction. The goal is to get issues out on the table, not to be definitive on any of them. Before doing that I want to thank those of you who talked about being afraid with the blogging, because it gave me license to move in this direction.

It may be natural to think of fear as a disease (I'm not sure that is right, but I do think it is natural to have this view) in which case the next thought is to look for cures. I'll get to that in a bit. First though, a different way to think of fear, really any of our emotions, is as some Darwinian trait that emerged via natural selection because it is helpful with survival. If there is a real threat, being afraid of it is a good thing, much better than ignoring the threat entirely. The fear that emerges because of a real threat I would term a rational fear. Those you don't want to cure. Rational fears should be respected and then acted upon.

I believe some fear is learned the way Pavlov's dog learned to salivate. There was a rational fear based on an experience with a real threat. Over time, however, that rational fear gets converted into a pathology. It's the pathology for which the cure is sought. The child is right not to touch the hot stove a second time. If the child stops exploring altogether things that are entirely different from stoves,because of the memory of pain from burning his hand, that is a problem, one that needs fixing.

One "cure" to the fear of the new, obviously, is experience. I joked in a comment on Angelica's blog where she indicated her reluctance to offer up criticism of her peers, just wait 30 years and you'll have no problem with offering criticism at all. Of course, conquering fear via experience begs the question, how much experience is necessary? Apart from offering up the obvious - it will take as long as it takes - I don't really know. But I do want to point out something else that might not be so obvious. Often, one overcomes fear via experience by developing numbness to the stimulus. The ideal is to conquer fear while maintaining sensitivity. That's a tough one. Sometimes it's one or the other.

There are other ways to overcome fear. Sometimes a sense of urgency does it. Something else comes up that is more important and demands your total attention and commitment. In carrying it out, you confront something you've been fearful of and this time you just crash through the barricade, as if it wasn't there at all. Knowing that is possible, I'm not sure how helpful it is as a model for you, though if there is a subject that you feel urgent about and you choose to write about it in one of your reflections, the intensity of your own emotion will almost certainly carry through in the writing, making it much more compelling to read (provided you slow down enough to produce something that is coherent).

Other emotions can also enable you to overcome fear, both joy and anger. I bring up the latter, in particular, because even when fear is a pathology one has to wonder if the cure is worse than the disease. Let's admit that as a possibility.

This, in turn, gets us to consider that other pathologies may emerge as a consequence of looking for self-protection against fear. Alienation that leads to nihilism can be one outcome from looking for a a cure to fear of the new. Nihilism can seem sophisticated where eagerness to participate according the rules can seem painfully naive. But the nihilism constitutes a type of caving in while the participation is an affirmation of being for something. I won't elaborate, because the thoughts are still painful after more than 30 years, but do know I transferred from MIT to Cornell because I thought too many of my dorm mates had gone down the nihilistic path, I was being likewise infected, and thus I needed to be in a different environment for my own well being.

On this, rather than on conquering fear per se, I did ultimately find some peace with myself, which was to do something I had always done, but to make more of a point of it, enjoy the peccadilloes and the personal idiosyncrasies, as much or perhaps even more than the accomplishments. In the blogging mine are manifest with the word play and rhymes (fear and good cheer). I can't say that it makes the fear go away entirely. But it does make it seem that many of the worries are not of such grave consequence. And when the amusement with self comes from the mild transgressions or the just as mild victories (this summer I was able to get Educause, the international academic IT organization, to do surveys like we did in class using Google Docs at an institute I was part of rather than use paper surveys as they've traditionally done, an accomplishment I found extremely satisfying I must say) that helps on figuring out what else is important and what is less so. With a better sense of balance on what is important, the fear of the new changes. It doesn't vanish, but it does help to figure out where you're willing to give it the old college try.

I wonder what sort of follow up we should do on this. I'd appreciate suggestions on how to proceed.

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