God is Not One: Praxis #5 Exercise: Go with the Flow

In her book Wisdom Walk Sage Bennet says, “Taoism teaches us to life of life of harmony with the invisible mystery woven throughout the matrix of wisdom. We are invited to learn to have an open posture to life that allows u s to intuitively flow with life’s ever-changing currents. This way of acting spontaneously and going with the flow gives us a new freedom. Practicing this dance we learn to cultivate patience, wait for the right time to act or yield, and learn to move with the rhythm of energies as they move between the complementary opposites of yin and yang” (179).

For this week’s spiritual exercise, I’d like to suggest that we practice the balance recommended by Lao-tzu. Daoism recommend cultivating the balance we find in nature. This balance is characterized unity of as yin and yang where yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive, and is associated with water, earth, the moon, femininity and nighttime while yang is described, by contrast, as fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive, and is associated with fire, sky, the sun, masculinity and daytime.

Because at the time the Tao-Te-Ching was written the active yang-styles forces of Confucianism were predominate Lao-tzu recommended  the passive way of water. However, some of us are too passive and need more active, fiery energy in our lives. Sage recommends preceding each decision with the question, Is yin or yang needed here? Do we need to step back and approach this decision from a feminine, yielding, slow, diffuse position or from a masculine, aggressive, fast, hard position? Some of us characteristically act with fiery yang energy while others of us are more passive, preferring the soreness of yin energy. Our goal this week is to try to choose the position that is most appropriate to the situation. If you tend toward yang, consider how acting more yin-like would feel, perhaps waiting is the right answer. On the other hand, if you tend toward yin, consider how acting more forcefully might feel. Is not the time to take matters into your own hand and act assertively? No position is always right and as the yin/yang symbol reminds each position contains the seed of its opposite.

Use your meditation or prayer time to consider the possibility of action or inaction. Which is most appropriate right now? It is often scary to step out of our habitual way of acting but challenge yourself.

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All Those Writing Assignments

If you are taking one of my classes or any class in the humanities or the social sciences you’ll notice that you have to do quite a bit of writing over the course of the semester. My face-to-face students have a short writing assignment due every class period as well as longer papers and/or group presentations. My online students have 4 or 5 major questions to discuss every week.

I worked as a technical writer for almost 20 years writing myself and supervising the writing of others. One of the many things I learned during that time was that the best way to become a good writer was to write–a lot! As a technical writers we didn’t have the luxury of waiting until some inspiration struck to start writing. Instead we went to work everyday and wrote (and edited and re-wrote) day after day. And we all got better at it. Spending that time every day trying to find the best way to say what we needed to say made us better writers.

I want my students to become better writers too and the only way I know to help with that is to encourage them to write a little bit on a regular basis. The writing assignments also have a direct effect on your grades since they are tied to the reading for the week. The best way to see if you really understand the readings is to respond to them in your own words. Explain them to yourself, argue with them, expand on them. The writing assignments give you a systematic way of doing that. But of course you don’t have to limit yourself to the writing assignments, you can do other writing as well. In fact I would encourage you to start the first week of class responding to the readings on your own and using the study guides for the class to start constructing your thoughts about the readings.

Finally the writing assignments (and study guides) help your grades because, as you will discover when you take the first test, often they serve as the basis for many of the test questions. If you’ve already done the writing assignments and worked through the study guide you’ll be one step ahead when it comes time to prepare for the exam essay questions.

For online students the discussion questions serve some of the same purposes. They help you think about the texts and respond to what they say. And you’ll discover many of the exam questions are similar to the discussion questions. So if you’ve participated in the discussions, you’ll be prepared for the exams.

What has helped you become a better writer? Let us know in the comments.

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Taking Good Lecture Notes

There are many good methods for taking good class notes. I define good notes as those that can help you study for and successfully complete exams as well as helping you retain the class content after the end of the semester. One of the best methods is called the Cornell Method. With the Cornell Method you divide your note-taking paper into three areas: a note-taking area, a cue column and a summary area. During class you only using the note-taking area leaving the other two areas blank. Then during the review sessions you have space to add the main ideas, questions, and prompts that will help you remember what was said in the clue area and a summary of the main ideas in the summary area. For complete instructions for using the Cornell Method see Taking study-worthy lecture notes on the Lifehacker blog.

Although it is easy enough to use the Cornell Method with regular note paper, there are several sites online that have either pre-made templates or instructions for making your own Cornell Method template, for example the Cornell Method PDF Generator and Productivity Portfolio’s Word Template for Cornell Notes.

Use the Comments section to give us your best note-taking tips and techniques.

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Art of Memory

Student often have a hard time trying to remember the information about the different religions or philosophers we talk about in class. If that’s your problem, you might want to consider a technique that has been handed down to us from the ancient Greek who had fewer of the memory aids we have today. This technique depends on identifying your memory locus or place and then placing images in each portion of your locus. Then, as you walk through your locus in your mind and see the images you are reminded of what it is you want to remember. Here’s how to set it up:

1. Develop your primary location, the ‘place’ of your memory. This should be a set of sequential locations that you can easily call to mind. It can be your home or the house you grew up in. The Greeks used the agori, the Romans the Senate, the Medievals the churches and monasteries. The only requirement is that the place contains several unique locations that you can mentally ‘walk’ through in a sequential manner. When I do this I use my previous home that was organized in such a way as I can mentally walk through it in what is basically a circle. Spend some time actually or in your imagination walking through your location, getting the order of passage clear and firmly placing all the furniture and other stuff in your home in each room. Greer suggests imagining a Roman Numeral V (5) or a hand in every fifth location and a Roman numeral X (10) in every tenth.

2. The second thing you might want to do is develop an alphabet of images. You could use characters from your favorite TV shows, books, shapes, animals, or other objects. Think in terms of the kid’s books, A is for Apple, B is for Banana or Baby or Bottle or whatever, etc.

3. Now you’re ready to memorize something. Let’s say the order of the ideas you’re planning on using in your essay question, for example identify the metaphysical position of Plato and Aristotle and define each term. Say you decide that idealism/rationalism and Materialism/empiricism are the best terms and you’ve constructed a short definition of each. But you keep getting confused which man was which. So you begin by identifying each philosopher with one of your letter images. Plato becomes a Mister Potato head and Aristotle an shiny red Apple. To remember that Plato is the idealist, you give him a giant eye, “Eye-dealism” right in the middle of his forehead, and have him holding a rat (Rationalism) by the tail. You can add other objects to the image to help you remember the other things you want to say about his philosophy. Then you do the same thing for Aristotle. Maybe you put him in the middle of one of those big, old gymnast mats. Then you could put image of each of the four forms in one corner. You might have him sitting on the Empire State building like King Kong to help you remember he’s an empir-isist. You can continue adding objects to each philosopher until you have all the things you want to talk about.

4. If you’re trying to remember these characteristics in order, you could put each philosopher in your spaces with the one item.  In the first room, with your answer to part 1, the second part 2, etc.

5. Now that you’ve got everything laid out you need to review it. You can do this both systematically as part of your study schedule but also intermittently, just before you fall asleep at night, while waiting for a bus or at a stoplight. You can also use this same technique for your other classes. You’ll discover that even though you’re using the same places and letters over and over again, you somehow can keep your philosophy separate from biology, etc.

Have you used this or any other memory technique? Let us know in the comments.

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Study Hacks

Life hack (from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia): refers to productivity tricks programmers use to cut through information overload and organize their data. Today, anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way might be called a life hack.

If anyone need creative ways to solve everyday problems of information overload and unorganized data it’s students–especially new students who may not have been learned good study skills (and hacks) in high school or returning students who feel overwhelmed by their return to the academic world.

As classes get going strong now, many people who could be good students begin to feel stress about all the work to be done between now and December. If you haven’t had the first test in your class, many of you will in the next couple of weeks. Often that’s a wake-up call for students who thought they could just coast through their classes without working too hard.

However, it’s not too late to establish good study habits and become a fabulous student!

I recently ran across a site, Study Hacks, written by an MIT postdoc and the author of How to Win at Collegethat has a lot of good information to help students become successful in their studies. I highly recommend perusing his site and considering the hints he provides.

What’s the best study hint or hack you know? Let us know in the comments.

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Studying is Better than Reading

For many students these classes are among the most difficult to master. It seems simple read the book and learn the material. However, nothing is as simple as it seems. If you approach our texts as you would a novel you will not be successful as a student. Instead of reading the assignments you need to study them. Studying takes more time and effort but leads to better understanding of the material and higher grades.

There are several techniques that successful students have used to be successful in my classes. I’m going to describe the one that many students have found successful together with a couple of variations. I suggest you experiment to see how to make it work for you. I’m going to concentrate on my face-to-face classes in this post, because online classes pose some special difficulties.

Much of the information for these classes is contained in the text book(s) and other readings. It’s important to read the assigned texts before the class both so you have a better foundation for the class and so you can earn extra credit points during the Kingsfield exercise at the beginning of class.

You might want to begin by quickly skimming the assigned reading. Look at the headings and subheads with an eye toward seeing the overall layout of the material. If there are photos or drawings you might want to check them out. Our philosophy books presents many of the most important concepts in the many line drawings throughout the text. Although the drawing may not make complete sense at this point, you’ll have an idea of what to look for. If you’re in the Comparative Religions class, you’ll find a lot of information and background in the sidebars and other material.

Now it’s time to do some concentrated study. Set a timer from 15 to 45 minutes. If you’re new to this start at the lower range and plan on working yourself up to longer study sessions. Begin to read the assignment, stopping after every 1-3 paragraphs to summarize and paraphrase what you’ve read. Look for natural break points where the book moves from one topic to another. Close the book and write down what you’ve just read. Use your own words, rather than trying to parrot exactly what in the book. Then open the book and compare what you wrote to what you read. Did you “get” it? Did you miss something? If necessary, re-read the passage and review your summary. When you’re happy with what you’ve learned, go on to the next couple of paragraphs. Again when you get to a natural break point, close the book and summarize what you just read. When your timer goes off, finish the section you’re working on, summarize it, and do your comparison. Before you take a break, get a clean sheet of paper and summarize  everything you learned during this study session.

Now, give yourself a break. If necessary, set your timer for 5 minutes. Then get up, walk around, get a drink. Do something physical, this isn’t the time to surf the web or check your email. And don’t extend your break for more then five minutes.

Before you start reading again, take a minute to review what you’ve learned so far. This would be a good time to try to answer the study guide questions, using the text to construct your answers, if necessary.

After you’ve reviewed your previous study sessions, re-set your timer and start on the next portion of the readings. Again stopping after every 1-3 paragraphs to summarize and review. Every hour or so take longer breaks. Go for a walk outside, do the dishes, play with your kids or your pets. But don’t stay away from the books for more than 10 or 15 minutes. And before you start up again, always review what you already know.

Some students who are oral learners like to use a tape recorder (on an MP3 equivalent) to record their summaries. If you’re in the car a lot, driving to and from work for example, you can play the tape as a review session.

Maybe you’re a visual learner and a cartoon of the main ideas will help you remember what you’re read. Lots of people find mind maps a helpful tool for learning new ideas. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article on Mind Maps you might find useful.

By the day of class, you should have the answers to most of the study questions and as the unit progresses you should be able to start constructing the answers to the essay questions. When we do the Kingsfield exercise at the beginning of class you should be confident that you’re prepared to answer every question. When it comes time to study for the exam, you’ll be ready!

For another take on some of the same techniques, check out The Art of Stealth Studying: How To Earn a 4.0 With Only 1.0 Hours of Work.

Have you discovered any especially effective study tips? Share them with us in the comments.

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God is Not One: Praxis #4 Exercise: Sabbath

The most important of the Jewish holiday is the weekly celebration of the Sabbath, that time of rest and rejuvenation that reminds us that even God took a day of rest. We all have busy lives and there is a tendency to full them all to the brim, forgetting to leave time for ourselves, our families, and our friends. For Jews Sabbath is a 24 hour period from sunset Friday night until sunset, or later, Saturday night when they can rest, reflect and re-connect with God. No work of any type is allowed during this time, including driving, cooking and for some even switching on a light or pushing the button on an elevator.

We can celebrate our own style of Sabbath unencumbered by the rules that have grown up around the Jewish Sabbath. Perhaps Saturday isn’t the best time for you to take a Sabbath break, then chose another day. I find that my life is such that Fridays make a better day of rest for me. Perhaps sunset to sunset doesn’t work for you. Try a different 24-hour period, or something less. Maybe just a morning or an afternoon or maybe only during daylight hours or after dark. You don’t need to completely disconnect from your life but many non-Jews are taking time to disconnect from all their electronic gadgets–no TV, no cell phone, no MP3 player.  (See http://www.care2.com/greenliving/you-unplugged.html and http://unpluggedsunday.blogspot.com/2011/11/thoughts-on-simplicity.html for more information about this movement.)

Think about what might work for you. Perhaps you may need to start small, only a couple of hours at first to see how it goes. Think seriously about what you will and won’t do during your Sabbath time. I chose Friday as my Sabbath because my Saturdays and Sundays are filled with responsibilities I can’t (and don’t want to) give up–including teaching this class. When I was doing this regularly, I turned off the computer and tried to do other types of activities. I would often plan outings with my friends as part of my Sabbath celebration.

Try it out. Then come back here and to class and let us know how it worked for you.

Additional Questions for Thought

In class we read “What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish?” Constructing an altar as part of our study of Hinduism gave you an opportunity to think about the sacred spaces in your home. What new insights did you have after reading Ochs’s article? Do you have some explicitly religious objects in your home (Ochs’s first category)?Do you have objects that you consciously exclude from your home because of your religious beliefs? Have you given non-religious objects religious meaning so that they function as religious objects (Ochs’s second category)? Do you have some objects that are not particularly religious but whose meaning and function have shifted to a religious one (Ochs’s third category)?  After reading the article, were you moved to make your space better express your own religious orientation?

The audience for this article (A Day of Rest) is faculty not students but it has an interesting discussion about different types of Sabbath observance you might be interested in.

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