learning to swim upstream

Swimming upstream is a concept I borrow from zazen meditation. Don’t worry, I’m no expert on such things and will not pretend to be. But the basic idea is the zazen is a mental discipline that requires working against the inclinations of the mind. If you’ve ever tried meditating, even in some informal way, you’ve likely experienced how quickly your mind begins to wander, that it’s hard to keep your focus on your breathing and that the harder you try the more easily you lose grip.

Sometimes, when we think about learning, we think of it as something that is as natural as can be, as easy as falling off of a bicycle. And, indeed, one can learn a lot from falling of a bike, including, eventually how to not fall off the bike but instead ride it. However, if all learning were “natural,” then we wouldn’t need schools. It might be more accurate to imagine learning as a human capacity that gets taken up by schooling and pedagogy to reach certain goals. Many of those goals, like learning to focus a long time on words on a page, require swimming upstream (if you will permit me some liberty with that metaphor). I don’t know that we can call reading an enjoyable activity. Some of us enjoy reading some things, but we can all identify things we don’t enjoy reading. The same is the case with writing but only more so. It’s not exactly pleasure that I am pursuing here as I write this. ¬†However I also don’t want to overstate the “nature” part of this (as in as opposed to culture); we’re really looking at natureculture, if you must hold on to these terms.

So all of that is maybe a long-winded way of saying that schooling is a laborious activity that puts the mind to work in ways it wouldn’t work if it weren’t in school. OK. But I’m hoping there’s more to it than that. I’ve never liked the term “critical thinking,” but one understanding of it I might like is learning to swim upstream in one’s mind, against one’s received preferences and intuitions. I don’t think this is something that we are particularly good at, even when we have been quite thoroughly schooled. Our tendency instead is to act as partisans in some agonistic drama where we always argue for our own views and interests with the expectation that everyone else will do the same and that it all will get sorted out through conflict.

Perhaps you are imagining that I am doing some blog version of vaguebooking about some particular conflict. That’s not really the case. Though I must say that some of my recent work on campus has helped me to see how very difficult it can be to communicate across disciplinary boundaries, not only in terms of different academic discourses and methods but the different local cultures that develop around departments, schools, and so forth. It really does require swimming upstream. And not against the flow coming from other people or the bureaucracy but against the flow in your own mind. By this I don’t mean martyring your own interests but rather recognizing that the thoughts flowing through your head and claiming to be “yours” and to be “your interests” aren’t you.

This is one of those ironic spaces in the university. The university is largely built on the idea of academics pursuing their interests. Everyone occupies their myopic research area, teaches in that area, and advocates for resources for their own work (both internally and externally). E.g., if I don’t stand up and argue that we need to hire another person in my field to help do the work of delivering first-year composition, certainly no one else will. If I and my rhet/comp colleague, Arab Lyon, didn’t work on a proposal for a new writing center, no one else would have (though others did certainly work with us). And to a certain extent that makes sense. Universities operate on a culture of expertise so the experts should weigh in on matters of concern in their area. But there’s a distinction to be made between my interests and disciplinary commitments to rhetoric or composing and communication as a matter of curricular concern on my campus (to say nothing of the larger project of general education). So I have to swim upstream against the former in order to better address the latter.

And if I realize that, then maybe I also can recognize that even when I am in my alleged myopic research space writing articles and what not that I might sill be better served to swim upstream against my interests, at least some of the time.

One thought on “learning to swim upstream

  1. Derek

    I like the analogy, Alex. It reminds me, too, that when devising and advancing program interests there are many moments of swimming upstream together and with more or less synchronicity. And also that buoyancy, technique, and stroke rate are not constants across the arc of a career. Interest pursuits and disciplinary commitments must slip to other positions (even temporarily) to make upstream gains.

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