30 June: Family Resemblances

I’m working on a little biographical entry for the Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy (published by Springer, and available online) on Sir Charles Cavendish, the younger brother of William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle and husband to the amazing Margaret Cavendish. The Cavendishes were one of the richest and most eminent families of the time and contributed to wonderfully to the life of the sciences and letters both as patrons and performers, as it were. They were not only engaged in the public discourse on natural philosophy in England, but maintained a vast and prestigious network on the continent, communicating with mathematicians and philosophers alike. The European republic of letters.

The Cavendish brothers were very well versed in mathematics themselves, but they also sponsored scholars and practitioners, especially opticians. They collected and commissioned instruments such as telescopes, and worked closely together with England’s best optician Richard Reeves whom they wanted to grind aspheric lenses. Apparently, these create hyperboles which correct aberrations when light enters the telescope (I think? Physics is awfully hard…) and which were all the rage at the time, but incredibly difficult to make. Before the Renaissance, it used to be rare that thinkers and craftsmen were working together like that, closely cooperating on the translation of thought into reality. Theory and practice at its best, mutually influencing each other, very Renaissance that. Just think of Erasmus and Froeben in his shop, or Spenser and Hugh Singleton at work together on The Shepheardes Calendar, correcting the proofs, creating the thing exactly the way they wanted it to be. Or as nearly as possible, anyway.

While Charles Cavendish was perhaps not an original thinker, his great achievement lies in his connections, and his enabling of others’ research. A modern funding body. His brother, of course was married to Margaret Cavendish who suited the family, hungry for modern scientific knowledge as she was. But I want to write about her in a later blog entry, I think. I’d like to mention Elizabeth and Jane, daughters of William’s first wife. They were very well-educated young women, growing up in a household that encouraged learning, and especially writing as self-expression. Sir William was a playwright himself, and the girls will certainly have enjoyed domestic entertainments such as household plays, performed or read. It’s no surprised, then, that they go and write their own plays, a pastoral and a comedy called The Concealed Fancies around 1645 while their royalist father was in exile, and they took care of the estates. The plays only exist in manuscript, although Daniel Cadman of Sheffield Hallam University has transcribed The Concealed Fancies, and written an introduction, both freely online available here. I’m glad the edition and contextual work is online, since we as readers and teachers must diversify the canon and include literary examples from a much wider range of authors and contexts. Thinking of how to sneak this one in into the timetable for teaching this Michaelmas…

Check out this In Our Time session on the Cavendishes and science.

21 June 2019: Thinking about multiple identities boosts children’s flexible thinking.

Diversity, diversity, diversity. Diversity in societies, workplaces, families, you name it – diversity enables problem-solving. That’s why the world is in such a sorry state, because we keep recruiting the same kinds of people, people like us, because of whom we know how they tick, we know we’ll work well with them, we identify, probably unconsciously, and thus prefer those like us to those who could do the job best, who could bring fresh perspectives, special insights, unique twists of thought. If employers were smart, they’d recrute those least like them. Then, The Problem, whatever it is,would be considered from all sorts of points of view, we’d have lots of solutions to lots of potential issues arising. That’s, by the way, why we have sex between two different creatures with different sets of genes, because a diversity of genes enables survival, while creatures like bacteria that multiply rapidly by cloning themselves (and thus always remaining the same) will not be prepared for changes in the environment and die in the billions. Just a little bracket here.

So. Diversity. Multiple identities. Kids from inter-cultural families are famously smart and open-minded (blowing my own trumpet here, being half-Iranian, half-German), as are those who have travelled a lot. They have (had to?) developed flexible thinking and problem-solving techniques. A new study has now explored how this same kind of mental ability can be fostered by encouraging children to think about several kinds of their identities at the same time. For instance, being a daughter, a girl, a friend, and a helper. At the same time. Researchers then ended the thinking sessions with beautiful wrap-up enthusiasm: ‘that’s so cool that you are lots of things at the same time’. And those children did significantly better on problem-solving tasks than those in the test-group.

This reminded me of the pedagogical approach typical to early modern humanism: in utramque partem debating. At school, you’d impersonate someone and think yourself into their motives, feelings, thoughts, in order to write a good speech of defence, or argument, or accusation. You might impersonate a pregnant woman whose brother-in-law has written her out of her great-grand-father’s will, or you might be the hero Achilles, grieving over the death of his bromance friend Patroclus. Good preparation for your subsequent law career. But also good preparation for a particular sensitivity towards things, motivations, personal contexts. Circumstances. When you are trained to think and feel yourself into other people who are vastly different from you, you become more alive to others. Mind-reading. Empathy. Then, making decisions becomes hard. Everyone has a legitimate reason to do what they do. And this kind of  elastic flexible roving thought and feeling pervades early modern culture, I find, be it Donne’s sermons carefully weighing every syllable of a psalm, or Sidney having Pamela reflect on suicide in the New Arcadia.

Now we know, thanks to science, what the Renaissance always did. That to think about yourself in different ways means opening yourself up to the world. And that is A Good Thing.

You can find the digested article here.

13 June 2019: Speedy Reading. Or not.

Do you know those heads-up  at the head of an online article, telling you how long it’s likely to take you to read it? I do appreciate those, although they smack of the capitalist obsession with effectiveness and brevity. I want it ALL, and I want it NOW, without actually making any kind of (shiver) effort

If you feel like those heads-up are always over-estimating your reading speed, fear no more: it’s not you, it’s them. The go-to number in the past was 300 words per minute, but a new meta-study has examined reading speed studies between 1901 and 2019, and has found an average of 240 words per minute for texts in English.

That has implications for assessment (let’s all be more generous with each other, and exorcize this devil of quantification), and also for processing of words in so many ways, visual, linguistic (which language, what script, native language?), cognitive (content? Memory?). It’s interesting that the study finds different speeds depending on the length of texts, and it’s also excluded texts ‘not read for pleasure’.

This all has implications for my project, since I chose Sheffield as host university amongst others because they have the HumLab, a research facility that nourishes interdisciplinary work between scientists and humanities people. That lab has eye-tracking facilities, and I’d like to explore how people read brackets (in prose fiction): do we read through them as if they were not there? (but they are!); do we go back before or after we have arrived at the bracket’s end, and re-read the previous clause? And do we then jump the bracket, or read it again?

So many questions, and possibly so many exciting answers. Or, more likely, more questions…

The digested article is here.