Sunday, 16 September 2012
Economies of Effort
My friend and neighbour Sally is a hard working lecturer and writer. Due to start a research trip to the Amazon rain forest two days after returning from a holiday in France, she has decided not to return to Shropshire in between trips but to stay in London, meet other members of her expedition, and set off again almost immediately.
The problem is her lecture work at a London university for adult students, many of them from overseas. "Classes start the day after I return from Brazil", she said. "I shall be exhausted and jet-lagged; it's going to be very hard to concentrate on the students, who will all be new to me, and to provide a reasonable body of work for their first day. They'll just have to hear all about the trip." As this is not a problem I have ever come across I had no solution to offer.
"I know what I'll do", she said. brightening. "I've done it before and it has worked before. I shall simply ask each of them to write a short autobiography, ten, fifteen minutes long. It'll get us going and I will learn far more about them than asking them, one after the other, to tell me about their past education and work history". I was impressed but doubted that ten or fifteen minutes of scribbled notes would give an accurate picture of a person's history. I'd need at least ten minutes just to collect my thoughts. Sally waved my objections aside. "They are journalists", she said, "I would certainly expect them to be able to write a concise profile of themselves in that time".
Once I'd stopped laughing at the cheek of it and got over the shock of this teaching aid when in need of recovery, I thought it quite a good idea. What if we could all ask new acquaintances to give a short resumée of themselves? When a musician introduces him/herself to another musician, they say : "John Smith, trumpet", that being the most important thing about them. At times I have been in long and tortuous conversation with a previously unknown person, desperately trying to work out who or what they are. And sometimes I have been bored out of my mind by people who tell me all about themselves, their aunt Matilda and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all in the first ten minutes.
I now need to go away and think what I would write in this fifteen minute autobiography; what do I do, flatter myself and leave out anything embarrassing, even if it is of importance, or tell the bare facts, warts and all. It's not so easy to pick out the most important aspects of one's life and history when there's been such a lot of it.