DIY Education – Second Year Capstone

July 21st, 2013

Two years ago I posted on here a declaration of self-education and a strategy to get me started with an autodidactic education program. The strategy didn’t last long, but I’ve been experimenting with different things to accomplish my goals. It took on a life of its own. Then, this spring, a lot of plans hit their climax all at once. I finished my Minnesota Master Naturalist class, got on payment plans to pay off back rent and a debt to the IRS, and I officially started my residential-contracting-via-utility-bicycle business. My brain was, at this point, crammed with unsorted information and experiences. I figured the next step in my personal education should be a sort of capstone project – to unpack and synthesize everything I’ve encountered in the spirit of this project since beginning it. That includes, but is not limited to:

  • Volunteer seed collection and native plant identification
  • Taking a MetroBlooms Raingarden workshop
  • Minnesota Master Naturalist training
  • Taking part in Occupy MN
  • YouTube videos or free online documentaries with Timothy Morton, Slavoy Zizek, Alice Roberts, etc.
  • Filling notebooks with half-baked essays on anthropology and human history
  • Visiting state parks by bicycle
  • Hiking
  • Conversations with naturalists, park rangers, landscape architects and environmental science students
  • Reading (but not always finishing) Small is Beautiful, The Ecology of Commerce, The Expanding Circle, Collapse, Sex at Dawn, Thoughts Without a Thinker, A Primer in Environmental Literacy and the Ecology of Freedom

My second year capstone is a two part writing project.

Part one is a sort of self-assessment where I attempt to unpack the last two years and pick out some key ideas and synthesize multiple lines of thought. This is for myself — as writing practice and as a way of taking stock. I’m going to use it sort of as a cheat sheet for the last two years, or as an external hard drive for my brain.

The second part is a paper putting Timothy Morton’s concept of “The Ecological Thought” into context in terms of ecological stewardship and political economy. I want to focus on some of the conceptual traps we fall into when we consider the intersection between human societies and the natural world, and how the Mortonian “Ecological Thought” turns those traps into new questions. The goal is twofold: to complete a finished philosophical essay and to combine my three focus areas of philosophical anthropology, landscape ecology and nonfiction writing in such a way that all three things feed off of each other.

This essay will be posted here when I’m done, maybe as a new version of my zine, “It’s a good day to face the hard things.” I’m exited to write it, but I first need to read Morton’s book entitled The Ecological Thought, and possibly also Ecology Without Nature. I’m familiar with his thinking through a series of videos and podcasts I’ve taken in. That kind of learning is adequate for forming thoughts and getting a sense of his ideas, but in order to write, I need to read the book.

As soon as this capstone is complete, I will return to the self-assessment and figure out what to do next.

Self-Education Strategy

July 21st, 2011

My goal for August is to stick to a schedule, as I indicated in my last post.  I got started early, although I’m easing into it, allowing myself to wake up late and fulfilling prior commitments (I’m scheduled to work on one of my “study days.”)  When I first started designing a study plan back in December, I was trying things out, keeping note of my default habits and trying to see which strategies were forming organically and which needed to be pushed. Discipline and determination only go so far if they are not accompanied by a realistic plan that you can stick to.  For instance, I could tell myself that I’m going to get up at 5 a.m. everyday and read for 5 hours straight, but that would be setting myself up for a failure. Conversely, my strategy could be just to wing it, and read what I want, when I want. But then I find myself watching every single consecutive episode of the first season of Meerkat Manor or reading the entire list of fake employees on the Car Talk website, and I realize that’s not going to work either.

I’m finding that instead of having a “plan” and then relying on your will power and determination to carry out the plan, it’s more reasonable to have a strategy that’s integrated into your life so you don’t have to think about it all the time.  This is a key point from The Power of Less on building habits. My strategy now is that instead of a plan, I have a number of “tools,” and instead of raw determination, I can make the use of those tools habitual.

That’s what I’ve arrived at through the last eight months of trial and error. My last post listed the schedule I’m committing to. That’s the habit part. Listed below are the tools that I’m using.

  • Reading journal - I keep a small notebook, no bigger than a standard paperback, with me every time I’m reading. If I’m transporting any book anywhere, it comes with me. The reading journal is a chronological record of what I’m reading. Each time I sit down with a book, I open it to the next blank page and write the title of the book down, usually abbreviated. Below that I write down notes with page numbers next to them. The inside cover has a list of all the books that are connected to that journal. This is basically the same thing as underlining and writing in the margins, except you can do it with books that you don’t own, such as library books.
  • Notes document - I keep a typewritten document on my laptop called “Awkward Writings on Finished Books,” which started as an attempt to snapshot books I checked out from the library. Sometimes I summarize books, write opinions or just type out interesting excerpts. It’s all pretty rough, but it’s only for my reference. I don’t document every book I check out. If I skip one and regret it, I can always check it out again, reference my reading journal and throw an entry together.
  • Thesis Workbooks - This is a new idea I’m giving a try. I used to design “courses” to study, like Economics or Comparative Religion. Now I just zero in on about four books at a time out of the mess of books I have laying around either from the library or my bookshelf. I have a hard time deciding what to read, and so I try to just let that decision make itself. I find there is usually some logic to what I’m reading at any given time — some way that books tie together. With the Thesis Workbook idea, I start with recent line of thought, an idea or a question. Ideally it would be something that spans multiple things I’m reading or have read, or something that keeps popping into my brain. I’ll create a document with that as a springboard and gradually write and see what I come up with. It doesn’t have to be a polished essay. It’s more about the writing practice. I don’t want to just study books — I need to do something with ideas that books (or DVDs, podcasts, radio shows, video clips, anything) get me thinking about. Also, practicing my writing is important to me, even if it doesn’t lead to a finished product.
  • Personal Journal - I also keep a personal journal on my laptop, and I try to write something in it every day. This is where all my confusion goes. By looking back I can see if something is or isn’t working, what I’m getting upset about or what I think is a waste of time and why. I can also work out thoughts to rediscover later, and I often make footnotes commenting on old posts. I’ve had some very productive journal sessions, and not just when I’m writing in it. I keep a physical notebook as well in case I don’t have my laptop with me, but I consider them part of the same thing.
  • Goodreads Website - Goodreads is both a huge, user-managed book database (to rival library websites and commercial dealers like Amazon) and a social networking site. You can post books you’ve read, are going to read, and are currently reading. You can update your reading progress, see your friends’ book shelves, create custom categories and post book reviews. I use it mostly to plan my future reading and to publish updates. I have a considerations shelf, and anytime I hear about a book and look it up, if don’t decide flat out to not read it, I’ll add it to considerations. It helps me not forget about books. There’s also a bookswap service where you can trade books with other members for almost-free.

Public Declaration of Self-Education

July 19th, 2011

If you’ve followed this blog in the past, you’ve probably noticed that I just can’t get my shit together. I’m always complaining about whatever job I have, how I can’t find my place in whatever scene I’m working within and that I can’t find the time or the resources to do the things that are important to me. I’ve stumbled my way through two independent, entrepreneurial “careers,” (visual art and music) even going so far as to set up a DBA for myself as a business. I’ve persisted and juggled and micromanaged and scrounged and saved and researched and multi-tasked my way to a cluttered mind, body and soul. For years, I held at least one art exhibit per year. For years before, throughout and after that, I recorded and released at least one album per year. My health, social relationships and peace of mind plummeted the more I worked at my seemingly illegitimate pursuits. The last gasp of that phase of my life was a show that my band and I played at the Kitty Cat Klub in January of 2010. Since then I’ve written one song and recorded no albums.

I can’t say that it should be any other way. I’m not going to bitch about how my “career” fell apart, because it had to. I don’t regret all the time and energy I’ve put into it, and there’s nothing to say that some part of it won’t re-emerge in the future. I can’t complain that I’m 32 and delivering pizza. I can’t complain that I’m living in a rented room. I can’t complain that the contents of what was once a live-in recording studio are now boxed into a south Minneapolis storage locker. My energy, identity and creativity are not contained in my career, belongings or any particular location. They don’t go away at a certain age and they don’t demand any particular activity. The events that make up my life all happened for a reason, and there can be no “should’s” about it.  After all I’ve gained and lost, I have to move on.

I have work to do, and what I’m publicly declaring here is that I’m putting myself through school — in my own way. I’m not applying for grad school or getting an online degree – I’m setting out on my own self-directed program. It won’t cost anything and I won’t be graduating in the traditional sense. What I’m committing to right now is taking my education as a priority. After my basic needs – making money, eating, and my physical and mental health – my education is the most important thing: studying, learning, developing my thinking and exercising my mind.  I’m starting small, and I’ll focus on it for at least a year and then reassess myself. Somewhere in between the stacks of books out there and the synapses in my brain, there are ways that I can connect with the world and maintain my existence in a positive way. There’s something pulling at me — which I haven’t really felt since I was like 22 — and I know this is the way to find it.

I started this in a different way this last January. I designed a very systematic structure, and I had two pretty ambitious “courses” I designed. It was an experiment. I kept at it, but I veered off course quite a bit. Then in the spring, life happened and I decided to “drop my classes.”

I’m starting small this time. My unwritten goal for July was just to get back into the habit of reading every day. Now my goal for August is to stick to a schedule, no matter what. Tired or hungry, happy or sad, inspired or not, I’m going to make sure I build the habit of keeping to a study schedule:

  • Everyday: write in my journal for an hour, uninterrupted. This is the first thing I have planned every morning after I get my routine out of the way.
  • Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday: study from Noon to 2pm. This means reading, writing, taking notes, working on problems, doing exercises – it depends on what the subject is. The point is to make a habit out of dedicating time and focus to the task of learning, beyond just sitting somewhere and reading.
  • I’m keeping my habit of reading every day as well. For now, I’m not focusing on any particular topics. I’ll do that as the need arises.

The last book I finished was The Power of Less, by Leo Babauta, author of the Zen Habits blog. He’s one of a number of sources I’ve been mining for inspiration on the philosophy of living a simple, minimalist lifestyle. In The Power of Less, Babauta stresses starting small, taking one goal at a time and making your intentions public, both as a means of motivation and accountability, and also as a way of sharing and connecting. I already know what pushing yourself to the limits can do, so now I’m taking something that’s important to me and I’m building it carefully from the ground up. Self-education and minimalism will likely be frequent post topics here on Quelquechose, and I’d like to spend some time tweaking the blog to better track what I’m doing as time goes on.

You can follow me on Goodreads where I post books I’m reading, wanting to read, abandoning, and just considering.