Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Vision and Voices

(This is the twenty-second in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken. Each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Voice One: I've been in several meetings already this week, and god knows how many over the last few years — that have hardly gotten underway before someone asks for clarification of what we're really trying to do, given the limited amount of time that we have to do it in. Inevitably, questions of that kind drive us back to starting parts: to mission, to vision. Sometimes it can be frustrating to know you're going to have to go back to square one again, but it's often a helpful move to try to clarify the extent to which we share a common vision and purpose so that we can make better decisions about process.

Voice Two: Okay, I understand what you're saying. But I don't understand why you're saying it. Why start a post like this with a bunch of what you yourself have described to your students as BUGS: Big Unsupported Generalities? I mean, look at all those generalizing words: several, someone, sometimes, often. Even the word "vision" itself is vague. What reason would anyone have to read any of this? It's just words. It doesn't engage the imagination. Where are the pictures?

Voice One: You have to start someplace. Gimme a break. If I hadn't started by saying that, YOU wouldn't even exist, hypothetical spur-of-the-moment rhetorical invention that you are. This dialogue may not as yet be visionary in the sense you mean, but it arises from a vision of a sort.

Voice Two: What are you talking about?

Voice One: I'm talking — WE are talking — about vision, and the role that vision plays in collaboration. And the immediate problem that you have so astutely — if perhaps not intentionally — hit upon is that the word "vision" itself means something more than the sensory apparatus by which one perceives pictures. It means, in a more general and abstracted sense, your core beliefs about what you are trying to attain, and often about the means by which you hope to attain them. For example...

Voice Two: Ah. An example! Now we're getting somewhere...

Voice One: For example, one of my core beliefs about writing is that too clear a vision of where you want to wind up is actually counterproductive. There may be some truth to the old saying that if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. But there's also an argument to be made for the vision of no vision.

Voice Two: Oh, man, here we go...

Voice One: No, seriously. It's the whole thing about how it's not the destination, it's the journey. E.L. Doctorow has a quote I like about that. He says, "Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go... Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Voice Two: The point being?

Voice One: The point being that you don't have to know where you're going. You don't have to have a clear vision of your destination. It's enough to know what the next few minutes are going to be like. If you're willing to set yourself into motion, eventually you'll find yourself in a place you may not have envisioned but which may be better than where you had thought you had wanted to go.

Voice Two: Sounds inefficient. And dicey. You could waste a lot of time that way.

Voice One: True enough. It's a risk you take. It might not be helpful in every situation. Say you're sitting in a room — to satisfy your craving for specificity we'll say it's a windowless conference room in the back of a library with eight of your colleagues sitting around a table at 3:30 in the afternoon trying to decide on the theme for this year's Sustainability Fair and get the wording for the flyer hammered out before 4:00—

Voice Two: There ya go...

Voice One: ...then it's unlikely that an open-ended, meandering, exploratory conversation will produce a satisfactory result.

Voice Two: Not in half an hour it won't.

Voice One: But some kind of Design Thinking exercise where we all brainstormed as many ideas as we could on Post-its for five minutes and then clustered them on the white board might lead us to come up with something that was fresher and more interesting than what we would have arrived at if we just went with the things that are already part of our initial shared vision.

Voice Two: So what you're saying is that there are two kinds of vision: the vision you already have and the vision you arrive at by acting as if you didn't actually have one to start with.

Voice One: Well, I hadn't thought of it that way before. But yes, that works.

Process Reflection:

I started out writing tonight with the thought I would write about Vanishing Points. I typed that into the subject line and found a graphic I was going to use but it was copyrighted and I just sat for a while and the phrase "The Vision Thing" came into my head. So I typed that into the subject line and wrote the first paragraph more or less as you see it and didn't like it much. That's when the thought occurred to me to frame my writerly dilemma as a dialogue. That reminded me of a course I taught one year called "Vision and Voice" and so I changed the subject again to "Vision and Voices," and the rest of it pretty much wrote itself. I stopped at a spot that felt like a natural resting place. But I could have continued in this vein indefinitely, and would have enjoyed doing so. But not if I want to get any sleep tonight.

I would not put this post forward as an example of profound or even particularly well-reasoned writing. But I think it does serve to illustrate the point being discussed in a way that satisfies me, and it's a good example of the effectiveness of dialogue as a rhetorical form. It's fun to write and it's easy to read. Over the years I have often asked students to use a dialogue framework of this kind to explore ideas, and the results are almost always more interesting and more entertaining to read than what results when they are given standard essay assignment.

The whole point of this alphabetical challenge, as I understand it, is to more or less force yourself into territories that you might otherwise not wind up in. That certainly happened tonight. What results from the exercise are often zero drafts like this one: preliminary assays that provide the raw material for what might later become more fully developed essays. I won't be sorry to get to the end of the series. But it's been an interesting ride.

No comments: