Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Chapter 45 - Seminars: Part 2 - Seminars

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Not working with the seriously disturbed, but teaching the everyday un-sane would become the central focus of his work. The seminar format would give him the chance to do what he couldn’t do in one or even several lectures—not just to get people’s attention and interest, but to begin to train
them towards consciousness of abstracting. Many interested people had not read Science and Sanity, and of those who did, many seemed to miss the meat of it. In his seminars, which could extend over a number of days and even weeks, he would have time to cover his system ‘deductively’—i.e., showing the systemic interconnections between the formulations—while also providing lots of examples along the way, with the ultimate goal of helping as many students as possible by “rubbing in” what he felt they needed in order to deal better with their life difficulties. He was not there just to expound theory. He wanted results.

After the first two seminars in Chicago, he returned briefly to Brooklyn and then left for an intensive schedule of teaching he had lined up for the remainder of 1935:
* July 29 to August 20 – a seminar in Berkeley at Cora Williams Junior College;  
* August 27 to October 13 – two seminars in Los Angeles organized by Vocha (Bertha) Fiske, a former teacher for Cora Williams, presently working in the California Department of Education who had attended Korzybski’s March lectures in Berkeley; and  
* October 16 to November 22 – a seminar for teachers at Barstow School.

During this time, he established the basic structure for the many subsequent seminars he would give. Eventually, he found he could cover what he wanted to cover in about 40 hours of lecture. And over the next 15 years, he would continue to develop both the content and presentation of his seminars (which, of course, were not entirely unrelated.)

Regarding content, throughout his subsequent teaching career Korzybski would find new examples and stories, and new demonstrations to illustrate his points. He would also continue to develop his formulations, which—as a visualizer—he liked to diagram. Over the years he would thus develop a collection of blackboard notes consisting, in large part, of such diagrams, which he used in each seminar to represent the significant formulations he wanted students to remember and use. For him the diagrams had great significance since he wanted to encourage what he called ‘eye-mindedness’ in his students.
Korzybski (late 1940s) seated behind his lecture podium
holding a rotating fan'a disk where there is no disk'.

Regarding his presentation, in the beginning period of his seminar-giving he would start with the basic formulations, what he called “the baby stuff”. In time, as he expected students to have read his work, or various popularizations of it, he found it more effective to move this material towards the end of the seminar. By providing more preliminary background to show the complexities involved, this order might reduce people’s tendency to dismiss ‘the baby stuff’.

In his seminars, Korzybski became known for his “footnotes”—digressions wherein he expanded on a topic, provided an example, or made a connection with something else he considered important. This led to his “peculiar style of lecturing”. Kendig, who attended many of his seminars, would describe it as,
...a non-linear method of developing his exposition of non-aristotelian orientations by going round and round in widening circles, turning back to some example given at the beginning to illustrate a mechanism of his later lectures. He used shocking examples from his study in mental hospitals, from psychiatry, from his own experience with deeply maladjusted people, criminals, etc., to (as he called it) ‘get under the skins’ of the class, to ‘shake them up’. He used examples from daily life, from the history of science, from mathematics. At times he was elegant, crisp, suave—at others, humorous, discursive. Often his face, his hands, conveyed as much as his words and diagrams. One educator said he was ‘the most powerful and effective teacher’ he knew, ‘a master of pedagogy’. Another said he was ‘the worst, should study pedagogy’. People were seldom neutral about him, what he did, or how he did it. The more he shook their complacency, irritated them by ‘rubbing in’ the method, the more they learned. He insisted that anyone who wished to, could enroll for a seminar. ‘Because a general method of evaluation,’ he said, ‘has to work with anybody in any human activity or it’s no good.’ Professors, doctors, psychiatrists, artists, researchers, young college students, businessmen, social workers, laborers, etc., all sat in the same classes. This may all sound chaotic; it was effective. (1)

Korzybski acknowledged that the quality of his lectures could vary and sometimes suffer, especially if he felt preoccupied with something pressing or if he hadn’t sufficiently planned. Until the end of his life, he sought to improve the quality of his presentations. For this purpose, he came to have an assistant sitting close by him and taking notes, who could give him a ‘flap’ during the lecture to remind him of where he had left off if he got lost in his order of presentation after an extended footnote. The assistant’s notes also helped him to review what he had covered in the course of the day’s talk. In a day-long teaching session, say for six hours with a break for lunch, he would do a mid-day ‘course correction’ looking over the assistant’s notes, checking off the diagrams he had discussed, deciding whether to move on to another topic or to spiral around again for another turn on a subject he felt needed more elaboration. An end-of-day recap with the assistant helped him review the day’s performance.

As Kendig said, some people liked his teaching style and some didn’t. One who did, Goddard Binkley—at the time a 23-year-old pre-med student—took several seminars in Chicago with Korzybski in 1942 and 1943. For him, “General Semantics had a distinctly purifying, immensely stimulating, and thoroughly therapeutic effect on my feelings, thoughts and general attitude towards life and the world.” He described his impression of Korzybski lecturing:
I looked and listened with rapt attention as Korzybski talked and gesticulated, absorbed in his every expression, gesture and movement. He constantly illustrated his concepts with diagrams and symbols and sometimes, little mechanical devices, like a small electric fan or a match box. His talk was punctuated with small quick movements of his hands and fingers, pointing for emphasis, making quotation marks in the air, and, most characteristic of all, indicating an “et cetera, et cetera,” with a quick ripple-like motion of his hand. He was a short heavy-set man with a large, totally bald head. He wore rimless glasses with thick lenses. He spoke deliberately with a deep Polish accent. He conveyed great understanding, warmth, and love for—but sometimes an irritable impatience with—his fellow human beings. (2)

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
1. Kendig 1950, “A Memoir: Alfred Korzybski & His Work” in Manhood of Humanity, Second Edition, pp. xxx–xxxi. 

2. Binkley, pp. 6-7.

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