Unexpected places

Because my poem “Rope Bridge” takes as its starting place a well-known psychology experiment (Dutton and Aron, 1974), I occasionally run across mentions of it in social-science contexts such as this organizational behavior course .  My friend Audrey Shafer (writer and physician) annotated the poem for the Literature, Arts, and Medicine database and also wrote a commentary on it for Academic Medicine

I’m always delighted to note that any poem of mine has breached the membrane and gone a little farther into the world.  And so I was this week to read (via the Tomorrow’s Professor blog) that the editors of In Order to Learn: How the Sequence of Topics Influences Learning appropriated a metaphor from my poem “Girder” in their first chapter:

In medieval Europe, some performances started with building a nailless bridge, a spectacular beginning, and indeed, an artistic one, for the artists then used the bridge as a stage. What matters for the construction of the bridge is the right sequence in putting together the pieces. The correct sequence leads to success-a bridge; an incorrect sequence leads to failure-a heap of sticks. Leonardo da Vinci first analyzed the bridge’s construction and discovered its design principles. The bridge was explained by means of scientific methods, so its construction principles could be reused and not just imitated. Through this process the bridge’s construction moved from art to technique.

A similar process is being performed today in instructional science. The presentation order of instructional material can strongly influence what is learned, how fast performance increases, and sometimes, even that the material is learned at all. This is true for both skills and facts, and remains true whether the material is presented by an instructor or explored alone by a learner. The analogy to the bridge continues to hold: just as Leonardo’s analysis of the bridge’s construction moved it from art to science, as we discover the underlying principles of the order effects in learning, we move instruction away from idiosyncratic expression and closer to a controlled and predictable science…

…In her poem “Girder”, Nan Cohen noted that bridges lead in two directions. We hope this book serves as a bridge between these increasingly related fields.

(from Tomorrow’s Professor)

I’m touched by this.  Also, in a layperson’s way, I find cognitive science fascinating.  When we lived in San Diego, another member of the Utne Reader salon I attended was Erik Jonsson, who was then finishing his book Inner Navigation.  I remember him explaining the concept of cognitive maps to us (although his definition is narrower than the Wikipedia definition, since it is really more about how we navigate using our inner maps of actual physical geography), and often think of this when I am trying to get familiar with a new area, or when I notice myself becoming successfully acclimated to one.  I’d moved away and lost touch with Erik by the time the book came out, but I read it with much enjoyment a few years ago and would recommend it.  I wonder if In Order to Learn has anything to offer me as a teacher of poetry?  The premise that the order in which you learn things affects how well, or whether, you learn them seems entirely plausible to me.  Further, though–surely as poets we are profoundly shaped not just by what poems we encounter, but by at what crucial moments we encounter them–and whether before or after other poems, too.  (Is it better to read Browning before Tennyson, or Tennyson before Browning?)

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