Monday, December 14, 2009

Frame of Reference

My lovely wife reads books for a local award. Some of the books, she assures me, are amazing. Many are dreck. Sometimes, to help her get through a really awful one, I'll read it aloud, doing the voices, emphasizing the unwittingly horrible turns of phrase.

K is a writer and she picks out why specific things didn't work, where the author got confused but wrote it as the protagonist got confused... stuff like that. I noticed something today and realized that it is one of the reasons I gave up fiction and, indeed, one of the major problems I have with people who live primarily inside their heads.

I read two sections today. In one, the character was dealing with emotional questions- is this really love? will it last? That sort of thing. In the second section, the characters were trying to decide what to do about someone trying to kill them.

The emotional weight, the vividness, the drama, the feeling about what the stakes were in the two sections was exactly the same. I was left thinking, as I often do, that the author had only experienced emotional pain and angst, and was trying to extrapolate that to physical agony and the terror of potential extermination.

Steve recently linked to an essay by Harlan Ellison. In the article, Ellison talks a little bit about a brush with violence. It was just a brush. He was neither the victim nor the perpetrator. For that matter, he tried very hard to avoid being a good witness. It still shook him.

That was one encounter, one step removed. As good as Ellison is at writing, as profoundly as it affected him, no matter what you feel when you read it, he barely got his toes wet in the shallow end of the pool.

He was never the target of such an act. Never been the force of nature who could do that. Certainly never been one of the people who step between the violent and the victim. For those who have, it is very different- different by orders of magnitude. Just being on the periphery, Ellison found it horrible. (I'm curious to read a before and after of his stories, see if they changed after this event).

This isn't about being a bad ass. Nor is it about 'people who live in their heads are wimps'. It's about teaching. Because this is the big issue with teaching: Many of the students have absolutely no frame of reference to understand what they are trying to learn. Neither do many instructors. How do you teach this aspect to students whose closest frame of reference is having their feelings hurt?


jks9199 said...

I've tried scaring the hell out of students.

Works, if done right, for recruits in the academy. Of course, you're presenting it to them via simulations and it becomes easier and easier for them to place themselves in those shoes...

But it sucks for a lot of people... Drove a couple of 'em right out of the class. (Actually, it does that for a few recruits, too...) And that wasn't even "full on"...

How do you give someone a perspective that they completely lack? How can I understand what pregnancy was like for my wife? Or what it's like for our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq being shot at and dealing with IEDs? I can extrapolate from my own experiences -- but it's only an extrapolation.

Ann T. said...

Dear Rory,
I don't know how to answer your last question, but I do have an answer for the art part.

The whole art movement called Romanticism (not the same as romance the way we understand it now) was about introducing subject matter of the "sublime and terrible"--Panthers leaping on prey, vistas that gave you vertigo,
Piranesi's creepy but beautiful landscapes of prisons, etc. In literature, the same--big incidents and big emotions, novels like Dracula and Frankenstein. The onset of it coincides with industrialization and the migration to urban industry.

In fact, you could say art's response now is much of the art and literature that makes everybody mad on the morals front--the demonstrations of the ick in life, for instance. The mainstream frame of reference people have for danger now is the domestic disturbance. Before that, I guess it had changed to the industrial accident.

How that translates into teaching danger on the curb or battlefield is very different, I'm sure.

Very thought-provoking post,
Ann T.

Steve Perry said...

I dunno if you know Harlan's history, but as a midwest Jew amongst the gentiles, he apparently got the snot kicked out of him a few times. After he left the Army, he, for a a time, ran with a street gang in, I think, New Jersey, doing research for a book.

I can't speak for how much real violence he's been involved in, but there it is.

And I still think you are missing a major bet by not reading good fiction, because there is as much truth there as you can find elsewhere -- if you are patient enough to look for it.

Kai Jones said...

We human animals like to learn by analogy, but some things have no similar experience to use as the basis for an analogy.

I struggled with this question while raising my kids: how do I teach them what I know to be important without putting them through the experiences I endured? Not everyone survives learning through experience, and as a species we have a mixed track record of learning from other people's experiences.

I decided to treat it like anything else I had to teach them. I talked to them, I showed them how to learn about their own reactions in various situations, we roleplayed; after unplanned events (like a car collision) I asked them to think about the difference between their expectations and what actually happened.

How much good is rehearsal? I think that would be an excellent tool.

Master Plan said...

Isn't beating the carp out of them the right answer? ;-)

You know, *give* them a frame of reference?

/mostly joking

Rory said...

J- That's the question. And good reminder that there are other things all of us have no frame of reference for.

Anne- I went and looked up some of Piranesi's stuff. Enchanting.

Steve- It's possible I'm missing something from fiction. I do read some- I learned a lot about leadership and being a complete person from the Aeneid and old ships from Patrick O'Brien... but the fiction I've dabbled with doesn't approach the truths of, say, Mark Zupan's "Gimp". Just very little in the same league. And, from a completely different direction, I'm dealing with more than enough big truth on any given day. Sucking down the sugar coating would neither make it easier no decrease the effort... but see my reply to Jonas for more.

Kai- Story telling is one of our most powerful tools for learning and teaching and being human. I feel strongly that it can be lead astray when the storyteller confuses entertainment with education. You can blend them- education sticks better if it is fun- but complete bullshit can be just as entertaining as profound truths or survival strategies, and sometimes neither the storyteller nor the listener knows the difference.

Jonas- it sounds so right, but it is still off. As far as damage, it's not the prospect of getting injured that people have trouble dealing with. A car wreck has so much more kinetic energy than a beating, a clubbing or a rape... but people get over the car wreck (psychological) faster.
In a student/teacher relationship, the only way to bring those emotions to the surface would be a real betrayal, with real fear. I'm not willing to go there. Have found a reliable way to bring on a full-on adrenal freeze, but not sure the relationship would survive...

Master Plan said...

I'd heard that in some variations of the Model Mugging\FAST\etc the attackers are kept somewhat segregated from the students and the primary instructor. Reduces shared empathy I figure, just like the sunglasses and whatever.

Is this useful in the context?

The teacher is thus still "safe" as far as the student is concerned but you can still get some real fear and such.

I don't think it'd be a panacea but it's A possible way to allow that type of training w.o. compromising the trust relationship between student and teacher. Of course then you need to maintain a stable of thuggish types to drag from class to class.

No idea if it'd be any more or less effective than other ways to give folks a frame of reference of course.

I think it's a tough question as it'll depend on the student, their history, how much time you've got, and how important it is to their training, and of course how much work the student is willing to invest outside of the lesson.

Do videos work at all? That Russian stomping, or whatever sorts of horrible shit you can find out there?

Another issue I'm wondering about is how do you know if you've done it right? If it's a student with no real frame of reference how can you tell if they've really got it, or if they just think they do?

Does the degree to which a person needs to be prepared or exposed to this stuff change depending on the level (civilian SD vs. LEO Use of Force vs. military combatives) at which they expect to be operating? Does that change teaching methods?
I guess I mean more minimum performance standards here.

Tho I suppose some of those populations might be expected to have some frame of reference (or even exposure to the real thing!) depending.

Finally, distance learning students, is it different to try to provide a frame of reference to an unknown person who's going to buy and read your book and never get trained by you personally. I mean, clearly it will be different, but more along the lines of: "If I am a nice soft middle-class type with no exposure to the real thing what diagnostics can I use to test to see if my intellectual\academic frame of reference is totally off, mostly right, congruent but fatally flawed, etc?"