September 29, 2010

Learned by Failing: Best Lesson was About Experience

This return back to blogging is hopefully unleashing quite a stack of things both here in this blog, but as well in Personal InfoCloud. It seems I will be using this to discuss personal tools, processes, and life stories that I often recount so to make things a bit easier (not sure who it is easier for, but there you have it).

Going Abroad to Learn a New Way

In 1988 I took my last semester of classes for my undergrad degree at the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS) in Oxford, England. I did this for a few different reasons: 1) I really wanted to study abroad; 2) I wanted to fill in a gap in my education's knowledge of history around European history; 3) It was a program on the study abroad flyer board at my college; and 4) It was much closer to my college girlfriend who was studying abroad in Lyon, France and I could still speak English (my French I had from an hour a day for three years in Montessori school from age 3 to 5 was more than a bit rusty). These may not be in the order of value I placed on them at the time.

One of the strengths of CMRS was it was run on the Oxford (Oxbridge) system of tutorials. My class load consisted of two tutorials and two lectures each week. Each of the tutorials required self-study (directed by a question given by the tutor and often one to four starting resources) so to fill a gap in one's knowledge and then write-up a six to 8 page paper each week on the subject. This was 12 to 18 pages of writing each week (or that was the aim) after learning as much as possible on the subject.

Learning By Failing the Lesson of Experience

One of the tutorials I had was focussed on the Early Northern Renaissance Art, which covered some of my favorite artists like Albrecht D%C3%BCrer, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Jan van Eyck as well as the perfection of symbology in art, use of proper prospective, and incredible attention to detail. This tutorial required quite a bit of reading, but the introduction lectures to CMRS provide insight into gutting a book to help get through the large volume of reading needed.

I was doing rather well, or passably well in this tutorial and then came the last essay for the tutorial, "Compare and contrast the Early Northern Renaissance with the Early Italian Renaissance". I had purchased a two or three of the needed Northern Renaissance art essential books and used the libraries heavily, but I had nothing on the Italian Renaissance period. This being toward the end of term the libraries were rather bare. I read up on what I had in my Northern books and pulled as much as I could from general art history books covering the Renaissance in general. When I had as much as I could pull together for the paper I wrote what turned into a four page paper. It was thin on content, depth, and quality (having put off writing to get more time to find information).

I read my paper to the tutor that week. He was more than a little displeased at the lack of volume, content, and quality. I pointed out that all of the books that were on the list were not available and I pulled from the best resources I could find, which were rather lacking on the subject. He asked a very pointed question, "Have you ever seen any Italian Renaissance art?" I said I had, as I was a fan of museums and the prior summer I had been to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy (among many other art museums around Europe). The tutor asked what differences I could tell him between the two Renaissance. I went into some solid detail explaining the contrasts regarding texture, color palettes, sharpness of detail, focal points, skies, clothing, and many other large contrasts.

The Great Payoff of All My Undergraduate Courses

The tutor looked at me over the glasses at the end of his nose and bluntly stated, "That, Mr. Vander Wal, is an A paper, if not better. But, what you have written is a D paper at best. I only grade on what is written. Let my advice to you be: Trust your experiences more than what is written, as that is how we all advance. Let your own experiences trump that others have written or have not written and you write that down so to document it."

So, there in what was my last paper in my last class of my undergraduate career was the most valuable lesson I had learned in all of my undergraduate collegiate career. All the work and money that went into it was tied up in a wonderful bow that prepared me for the rest of my life like no other. I had many great learning experiences prior to this, but nothing with as much gravitas as this. It gave me conviction to examine and tear everything apart and question it with my own lens and one that had me pay much closer attention to my own experiences while trying to frame everything from experiences to learning from other's experiences where I lack my own.

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