Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Blogger Unblocked

I going to start this post with an admission: for about a month I've had an unusual and unexpected bout of 'blogger's block'.

[Image Source: Cartoon by Dave Walker.
Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons ]

Until today, I wasn't able to pinpoint why or what had changed, but I think I may have the answer. In August as part of a Wilkes assignment, I spent an afternoon moving most of my blog and newsletter email subscriptions over to an RSS feed. Instead of clicking back and forth between my email and each blogging site, I now use a a feed reader (mine is Google Reader) which bundles them up for me and delivers them to one location. Each day, abstracts of the day's new articles appear in a list making it really easy to scan for the choicest tidbits.

"What a wonderful discovery!!!" I thought as I transferred everything over and unsubscribed from email delivery. In theory this switch to RSS should have made it much faster for me to get through all the day's articles and kept the number of unread emails in my inbox from creeping up towards 2000! But it didn't work out quite the way I had envisioned. What actually happened was that using RSS just made it easier to ignore the subscription influx altogether. The end result seems to have been that as I stopped reading, my own dependable flow of ideas just gradually shut off.

I have come to the conclusion that in order to grow ideas my brain requires regular nourishment from other sources. I guess I'm not the original thinker I believed myself to be. It seems that I'm more of a remixer and masher-up of stuff I take in from all sorts of sources: from my experiences at school and conversations with other grad students, from what I read and the technical challenges I face when things don't work. Of all of those, the reading seems to be the most powerful component.

Perhaps my subconscious seizes on new information delivered to my brain through reading and turns it into lightning fast links between previous experiences which then register in my conscious mind as inspiration and new ideas.

I know that a synapse fires in the brain when the threshold has been reached (so everything is ready) and the right chemicals have been delivered. Are ideas just complex brain signals that need the right combination of readiness and new inputs to set them in motion?

If that is the case we have an absolute responsibility to foster the upwelling of ideas in our students by creating for them a learning environment that is rich with experiences and challenges and nourished by plenty of reading and conversation. We have to sensitize them to the way it feels when ideas come and help them learn to give their brains time out from the sensory overload of constant entertainment and chit-chat that can flood the neural pathways and block the birth of insight.

Here we are at the beginning of a new school year. It's easy to for me to let ideas get buried beneath the weight of old habits and new pressures, so I have to keep reading -- yes -- but I also have to make time to turn at least one idea per term into a new experience for my students. Otherwise even the greatest ideas will evaporate, and I might as well retire.

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