Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Teaching and Training

It's the end of the semester, and it's time to reflect on the work that one does as a teacher. My running has suffered a bit this spring, but it's because I've been working a lot on my other passion, which is philosophy.

Though I know that most of the folks who read this blog are runners, I thought that some reflections on teaching wouldn't be inappropriate, as connections can be drawn between the sort of intelligence that it takes to train well and the sort of intelligence it takes to teach well. Both are difficult and vague tasks, they require listening as much or more than knowing. Both also take a sort of faith that things really are working. The material that the teacher works with is much like the body--dark, resistant to intelligent control, possessed of wild and diverse instincts. Just like students, our bodies have minds of their own, our relationship with them has to be as receptive and open as it is controlling and directive, and the best training depends on developing a partnership with this essentially unknowable quantity.

The rewards, however, are sweet, and they show themselves towards the end of a process that is often messy. In the end it is not a straightforward quantity that is produced, not a direct and measurable outcome, but a set of capacities. In running, these capacities are demonstrated in a race, in a performance that pays the capital that training accrues forward in inspiration. When we run well, we inspire others, sure. But perhaps more importantly, we inspire ourselves, and we can carry that moment of inspiration with us like a secret lantern that lights us up from within and illuminates a way into the messy project of renewing the self once more.

Steve Prefontaine doing his work.

In teaching, success holds to a similar pattern. As teachers, we find our inspiration towards the end of the semester, when our students begin giving back to us the questions we gave to them. If we are lucky, we find ourselves challenged and inspired and renewed because we have created a community of folks who can speak to our own worries, who help us think through our most difficult questions in different and exciting ways.

Cornel West doing his work.
In this way, we demonstrate the continuing power of the ideas we have picked up through our own education to animate the minds of further generations of people. If we are lucky and things more or less work out, we get to see the power of our own intelligence reflected back, just as a well-run race can reflect the power of our bodies. This moment of insight is not best understood as satisfying narcissism or neediness (though these are real dangers for teachers), but as a moment of gratitude for the small things that we can offer to the world--and relief, in many ways, that the world will accept our offerings.

So much of what we are rewarded for in professional philosophy has very little to do with a genuine practice of philosophy. Just as running so often seems a waste of human energy, so too can philosophy seem a waste of human intellect. The value of each of these practices is indirect, difficult to measure, and can even appear absurd. So, we do the next best thing and measure journal articles published or compare PRs. Of course, those of us who chose the path of philosophy had already decided that we were not driven by external rewards (no matter how much we regret this decision at times!) but by the distinct pleasures of thinking new thoughts--and by the idea that keeping the moments of inspiration that philosophy gave us alive for ourselves and for others is a meaningful way of putting ourselves to use.
That's teaching, the work of philosophy.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Both/And": the science and soul of running

I was inspired by the tremendous running by friends, elites, and virtual training buddies in Monday's Boston Marathon. The event was a perfect storm of marathon geekery, as Americans Desi Davila and Ryan Hall ran well, a world's best was run, and there was that wonderful tailwind that added a little twist to everything.

The tailwind has been analyzed now for a few days. Two accounts of the effect of the tailwind stand out for their excellence. They each capture a side of the sport--its "double barreled" nature as William James would have put it.

The first is from the always reliable Science of Sport blog. I encourage you to read it. They argue that the wind gave the top runners a 3-4 minute advantage. In particular, the scientists there do an excellent job of talking about their method of analysis, which is actually historical, rather than "empirical." Philosophers, take note!

The second analysis I will copy here below. It was written by the anonymous poster "kudzurunner" on the letsrun boards.

Great discussion! Real wisdom from the elders. Thanks Hodgie-san and Tom D. Thanks, too, Malmo, for the deep drill-down in your statistical analysis. A little more patience with the idiots, as you're (immensely) fond of calling them, might be a good thing. But you're good with the numbers, and this is a great thread. 
Meta-analysis?
1) The tailwind played a large and undeniable role in the results. As someone once said to the whore in an old locker-room joke, "We've already established that. We're just arguing over the price." (A man asked a woman if he'd sleep with her for a million dollars. She smiled and said "Sure, baby." He then asked if she'd sleep with him for $25. She sneered and said, "What do you think I am, a whore?")

1a) But the precise advantage conferred by the tailwind--3:40? 2:30? "somewhere between three and four minutes"--is and will always be a matter of debate. (The idiots will always be wrong, of course.) And Mutai and Hall, among others, are clearly invested--as brilliant creative artists often are--in minimizing the effects of the environment (in this case, the tailwind-help) and focusing on individual initiative and achievement. Forgive them. There's a method in their madness. God help you if you just don't get this point. Somebody in the next town who gets it is having a good damned time--and running faster times than you, too.

2) Boston has proved itself, over many decades, to be a slower-than-average course, despite the net altitude drop. This is why very few WRs have been set there. The hills are part of this--or have traditionally been assumed to be a part of this.

3) This year's results on the "slower-than-average course," which include a world-best (but not WR) and American-best (but not AR) create a huge interpretive mess: the perfect storm for professional marathon kibbitzers. This one will be argued for the next hundred years.

4) 90%+ of those making arguments for one interpretation or another tend to work from either/or rather than both/and logics. Nobody, for example, has suggested that the tailwind--the knowledge on the part of Hall and the other front-runners that the tailwind would be with them the whole time--might have contributed to a throw-caution-to-the-wind strategy that enabled better-than-average results. (Malmo's statistical regressions, for example, fail to allow for such an effect.) In other words, it might be a good idea to remember that the word "inspire" derives from the Latin root "to breathe." Great runners aren't just aided physically by the presence of a tailwind; they're inspired by that wind. They're goaded--as Hall was--into taking risks; into trying for more than they've ever tried for.
Both/and. Allow it. It feels good.

And of course the full moon occured at 4:44 AM on Boston Marathon Monday. A perfect storm, indeed.

Thanks to all the Boston runners for their inspired--and inspiring--performances on Monday!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Gilmore and Squires

Peter Gilmore is retiring.

For some reason, he always struck me as the runner's runner.

Here's the link to his blog. It's got the nice line:"My running heroes have always been the soul runners, who love running for nothing more than the feeling of the wind in their face. Guys like Bill Rodgers and Dick Beardsley who still run every chance they get."

Bill Rodgers and Dick Beardsley were both coached by Bill Squires. There was a nice article on Coach Squires in the recent Running Times. I read it with interest, as I used his book Speed With Endurance to prepare for my last marathon, and I ran a PR. It's worth a look.

Some horses back in Squires' day.

I've never met Squires, but from what I've heard he was in a certain sense the anti-Salazar. He wasn't obsessive or concerned with the latest gizmo. His athletes had a hard time even understanding what his workouts were. I guess this was because he knew that true distance runners are a flighty bunch. You could tell them what to do or not tell them what to do. They were going to do it their own way anyhow. So, maybe what made Squires a great coach was his unwillingness to control his athletes. Saddle-breaking a horse takes control and domination. But a distance runner is not a pack horse; at his best he is wild and instinctual. How do you train that?

You don't really. Maybe what Squires knew was this: looking at the problem of coaching as a problem of training was looking at it the wrong way. It's not popular to say it, but true runners are born, not trained. Once you find one with spark, the main problem is keeping the spark lit, the runner happy and out on the road. In this simplest of sports, coaching is a simple (but not easy) challenge: create an atmosphere in which the native wildness of the runner can thrive. Get some horses, and get them to run.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Musings on a Competitive Culture

From a local message board, the common criticism of participation medals:
"Everyone's a winner... we are raising a nation of mediocrity."

While a "nation of mediocrity" may be the result of our intentions, I think that the message culture sends to individuals and especially young folks is loud and clear. If there is a cultural dogma today that everyone believes, it is they must achieve at the very highest levels in order to be a successful member of society. In my practice as an academic adviser, it has become clear to me that young people today hear adults talk about competitiveness and winning ad nauseam, and they are afraid that they won't be strong enough to survive. See, for example, the trailer for the movie "Race to Nowhere."


The effect of dogma, all too often, is contrary to the intentions that motivate it. The young person, upon hearing this lesson, rationally and intelligently surveys his abilities. When these abilities turn out to be more or less like everyone else's, the young person makes a rational decision according to the dominant cultural tale. He accepts mediocrity. Obviously, logically, everyone can't be a winner. And in this way, we learn to accept our compensatory and banal participation medal, and just hope for the best. Thus the paradox is explained: although no society in human history has ever extolled to such a high extent the value of the competitive spirit and individual effort, no society has ever been so filled with human beings that seem unable to give any effort at all. 

Perhaps that's because winning is a complex human practice that requires the long development of a variety of virtues. It also requires dependence on other people, on friends, coaches, families, and sometimes an entire community of support. This fact is obvious to anyone who has ever won anything. But, for some strange cultural reason, a victory is almost always seen as an individual achievement and sold to the next generation as the effect of a single variable: the competitive individual will.

Of course adults--sane adults--know that success in life has as much to do with compassion as it does competitiveness. They know that a competitive spirit that is not balanced, friendly, full of good humor, and able to lose well will be unhappy with himself and won't be able to achieve his own goals. They also know that the value of winning is measured by the strength of the relationships formed in the effort, not in the glory that may redound after the fact to the winning individual.

If the worry is social mediocrity, perhaps it would be better to assess the mediocre goal that our own society has set for itself: the private accumulation of money. Somewhere along the way, the American ideal of freedom to live as your please, the implementation of democratic ideals of social opportunity, rich experience, and self re-creation got repackaged and sold as the dream of making enough money to not to have to worry about social problems. The American ideal of individuals taking responsibility for the social outcomes and opportunities in their communities got replaced by the flat ideal of individuals taking responsibility for their own private financial health. 

What does winning mean today? Why don't people put forward the effort to win? Why do they lack competitive spirit? Perhaps the cause of mediocre efforts is the unworthiness of the goals that are most commonly offered as the outcomes of those efforts. After all, the value of any effort or will can only be taken in terms of the actual results that the will accomplishes. Maybe the reason people are lazy has very little to do with the innate character of individuals and more to do with a social structure that is unable to show the relation between an individual drive and the social soil out of which that drive rises and to which it must return.

The dirty little secret of champion distance runners? They love to run. They love their training partners. They love their coaches. They follow the history of running, and they participate in the community. Their running is a rich social practice that develops the whole individual, not just lungs and hearts, but mind and spirit. Sure, they are competitive sons (and daughters) of bitches. Absolutely they have individual talent. Yes, they are willing to sacrifice certain elements of themselves to the desire to win. But the real challenge that they were able to meet was the the refinement of the desire to win into a practice that leads to joy, meaning, and individual human flourishing. The only way that the desire to win can be maintained is by connecting it to moments of compassion, by weaving it through moments of genuine friendship, and by opening one's self up to the aid of others. 

That's the promise of democracy: it is built on the insight that social concern and individual achievement are intertwined concepts. The great irony of the distance race is that it takes the efforts of hundreds of people to create even the possibility of a winner of the race. Streets have to be cordoned off. Timers have to be set. Awards announced. A race is a social construct precisely designed to bring out the best in human beings, to inspire them out of their laziness, and to allow them to discover their own wills. It is an organization crafted to bring out great and noble extremes of human effort. This fact is too easy to forget these days, but if we forget it, we end up with neither social organization nor individual achievement. Only lazy wealth, hopeless poverty, and mediocre attempts to bridge the gap.
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