Monday, March 30, 2009

Visibility and Attention

When I speak of visibility, I’m referring not to what’s visible to us, but how visible we are to others. To feel another’s attention is almost like being touched. If it’s positive attention, accepting and encouraging, it’s like being stroked. If it’s negative, critical and rejecting, it feels like we’re being hit. This isn’t just metaphor. If someone looks at us with contempt, it makes our heart race. We respond physically to how others react to our presence. The chemicals and muscle tension register whether we choose to consciously acknowledge it or not.
Psychologist Nathanial Branden feels that our most important social need is for visibility. We need to feel seen and responded to by others. It’s an affirmation that we exist. When we feel we are seen we feel connected to the world, when we feel we aren’t we're isolated. When people are listening in conversation it feels good, if they aren’t it’s frustrating. When a parent turns away from a child, the child feels unworthy of attention. The state of invisibility leads to whatever actions have been known to get attention in the past.
A few years ago, I was surprised to discover that every student in this very smart class of illusionism students had been diagnosed with attention problems. It bothered me that such an interesting and varied group of intelligent minds had been identified as defective. My concern grew when during the hardest assignment I gave that semester, the room was as quiet as a library, everyone thoroughly concentrated, and their attention held the whole evening. Throughout the semester the harder the assignment, the more complete their attention. This started me wondering how much of what we’re terming a defect might be boredom reflecting capacities we don’t consider in our model of education. Given the complex stimulation of the modern world from the beginning of life, these students may have developed intelligence that the 20th century educational model fails to take into account. What doesn’t fit the old model is diagnosed as a condition to be fought instead of a new capacity to nourish. The current methods of evaluation try to fit complex individuals into narrow slots thought up by someone who probably has an entirely different life experience. To succeed the student may have to override what they feel is interesting and important to adopt a standard that may not have any usefulness in their world. The way we approach standards today has too much to do with power. It serves to filter out all but those who match the values of those who set the standards. It puts people with different kinds of excellence at a disadvantage. Limited models of reality cloak the range of human perspectives. Everything else is invisible. Beyond the knowledge we fail to take into account is the disrespect implied by not seeing other points-of-view.
With loving, respectful attention people can grow and develop their particular capacities. Studies of motivation in ‘91 (Caine &Caine) have shown the superiority of internal motivators to external- whether punishment or reward. We have much better results when we feel we’ve chosen our own goals. They write, “…internal motivation becomes difficult to generate as people begin to see themselves as fulfilling only goals formed by others.” All researchers come to same conclusion- we need to abandon the “paradigm of behavioral contingency”. Neither carrots nor sticks got the best results.
Education needs to develop ways to see the individual and offer means for each to pursue projects that match and further their interests. To pay attention and offer the support we see as necessary, the student becomes more engaged, more visible, without being controlled.

3 comments:

m. jordan tierney said...

great post!
see a related article 'Hellhole' in the New Yorker last week by Atul Gawande about solitary comnfinement...
we humans are most cruel to each other...

Giorgio Vaselli said...

Very close to my opinion about what's wrong with the current education system, especially when it comes to doing research on the grad level. Even in science, most grad students lack a vision of direction, so they rely on their supervisors. The system got used to this, so now supervisors feel natural to direct their grad students instead of letting them free. The results would be much better. They even go as far as "using" their grad students for their own benefit, and treat them like employees. For students like me, this attitude of profs is devastating, and as you wrote, results in loss of motivation. Where are the times when a PhD was about one's own idea/theory? Supervisors don't take that risk.

Jon said...

Susan! if i can use some of this space to fully acknowledge you, this blog and the views expressed in it, are exactly the preaching you are practicing. my experience at MICA was completely wonderful. i revere my education, and heavily praise the school whenever i can. in part because i found "myself" and in another part, my artistic voice. susan more than just a teacher was a SPACE for me to discover who i was through the art i was creating. a judgement free space to view the work as not just a technical rendering, but as a portal to the frontier of self. she would go as deep as you were willing to. if you pushed technique or concept she bowed to receive it. she becomes like the deep deep sea. the deeper you go inward the more zany and radical the creatures of her ideas and suggestions become. she has no walls. no rules if it's honest and true she will meet you there. she's thrilled to meet you there and just as eager. in my experience other teachers taught "fundamentals." they taught what they knew to be true. the road tested guide to good art. susan was a brave provocative avenger in the unknown. teaching you to create your own truth and to believe it only as long as it serves you. so many of actions are made in an attempt to please. an attempt to be acknowledged. The Course in Miracles states that everything said can be broken down into an act of love or a call for love. LOVE ME or I LOVE YOU. the two are beautifully intertwined and can coexist beautifully. but when a teacher is "trying to do it right" (LOVE ME) meets a student who is trying to please that teacher (also LOVE ME) you have this recurrent whirlpool of LOVE ME! LOVE ME! and it ends up serving no one. i have an energy healer friend who was telling me of a mystic woman he had encountered who would spend her time spinning new chakras for the world to use. whether that's fabled or actually possible is less important than the intention of the act. to selflessly say I LOVE YOU. to begin to sow again after decades or centuries of this collective reaping is so where i want the world to be heading. to begin to say I LOVE YOU in as many actions as possible is to spin chakras. is to help pull each other out of the whirlpools of separation. i love you.