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  • Writer's pictureLaura Fedolfi

The Voodoo That I do...

I mentioned in a previous post that I have a tendency to spin my bad habits from straw into gold as I figure out ways to describe them as strengths as opposed to failings. Like a modern day Rumpelstiltskin life coach. A practice my husband, Steve, finds equal parts annoying, impressive and straight out baffling (I once claimed that my habit of regularly leaving my glasses in random locations so that the first five minutes of every day I walk around looking for them as a good thing, because when I did try to put them in a "safe" place, that place was so "safe" it took me weeks to find them. The lessons I learned- 1. I am really good at picking safe places- nothing happened to those glasses, and 2. glasses that are inconvenient are more useful to me than those that are safe. Baffling to him.) Just this morning, I realized that something I did for YEARS in high school and college that I always thought of as a hack, or cheap trick- something I was NOT proud of was actually training me to have an important skill set that I want to tell you all about. Bam! Straw into gold.

On the rare (ahem) occasions when I had failed to complete the readings for a discussion class, I had always relied on the "find a connection" technique. It involved listening to other people who had finished the readings, and finding a connection between their contributions, and offering this up to the class for consideration. Not a groundbreaking activity- it has been used for centuries by lazy students put on the spot to fake their way through a class. I'm sure a hung-over Plato pulled his Universal Form idea out of bull-shitting his way past Socrates questions. "I think Fred and Susan's "ideas" about truth are actually where the real answers to your questions lie..."

The key to being good at this life-hack is to consider your source. I was once in a high school english class where the discussion was about the book, The Natural, by Bernard Malamud. It just so happened that I had done the reading and I watched in amusement as one of my classmates offered her thoughts about the book by describing a scene from the movie, The Natural, starring Robert Redford. A scene that unfortunately for her, was not from the novel. Before the teacher could call her out another hapless student agreed with her badly referenced comment - using the "find a connection" technique, and was also exposed as a homework scofflaw. I think our teacher actually enjoyed exposing them (maybe she looked forward to this every year she taught the book) and it makes my point; this is not a technique without pitfalls, and done badly, is embarrassing and moot.

But I was observant, and learned how to "find a connection" relatively well. What I didn't really understand is that mastering the "find a connection" technique, while good for getting by when you drop the ball, is also a path to become a good listener. Think about it- when you rely on this technique, you learn to really listen to other's arguments and thoughts, both analyzing their strengths and weaknesses and looking for commonalities among other ideas. And that is no small skill. That is actually critical analysis that can move a class discussion forward into new ground. How many people who are well-prepared for class sit and wait to answer the professor's questions to demonstrate that they did the reading, and are so focused on what they will say that they are only waiting for their classmates to finish talking, not listening to them at all except for to anticipate when they will stop. Those can be some flat, tedious classes.

But throw in some of us less thorough students who need to listen and find connections, and now your class is moving into new ground or unexpected places. (It is important to note that my husband is arguing that good students both do the reading and listen to the discussion. Fine. That is true, but I would still argue that the ideas that come from the necessity of the stressed student are at least as good if not better than those that come from the calm, prepared student. But I would think that...) I believe that both types of students are necessary. Which means that the coping skill that came from being unprepared is an important ingredient for discussion-based learning. And not just a cheap trick. And if, because of a tendency for irregular follow-through, you have developed this hack, and take that classroom skill into the world to use it at work or in meetings, and it helps you to see connections between ideas that open up new pathways, well then that weakness just got reframed as a strength.

Straw into gold.

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