November 9, 2014 by Jean
I’ve noticed changes in the ways that I read, think, and learn since I retired from teaching in May. I’ve spent most of my life in school (either as a student or as a teacher), so learning has always been a core daily activity for me. But most of that learning was focused on getting to a goal. For example, I might have three books to read at the beginning of the summer in order to decide by the end of June which one to use as required reading in a particular course. Or I might need to gather information about a particular issue and then think about how to structure it for presentation in Monday’s lecture. Or I might have a list of sources that I needed to read as part of the research for writing an article on a particular topic. What all these learning activities had in common was that they were primarily linear, moving from point A to point B through a beginning and middle to get to a particular endpoint or goal.
Now that I’m retired, most of my learning is no longer focused on deadline-driven goals. Instead, I can meander through the intellectual landscape, wandering down tangential paths, going wherever my interests take me. I find that I tend to have 6-7 different books in process at any one time. As I’m reading one thing and come across a reference to something else that sounds interesting, I’m likely to jump up and check its availability or maybe even put a hold on it at the library. This week, I have been reading a collection of scholarly essays on aging that I picked up from the library last week after coming across a reference to it in another book. In the past two days, this reading has led me to two more books that I have now requested from the library. By next week, these books will be waiting for me to pick up – and who knows where reading them will take me. My reading list seems to be growing exponentially as my intellectual universe expands ever outward.
The way I am learning now seems very much like the organization of information in hypertext, so I have labeled it as “hyper-learning.” According to the World Wide Web Consortium, the term “hypertext” was developed by Ted Nelson in the 1960s to conceptualize a way of organizing information that would not be linear because the text would contain links to other text. This is the organizing concept for the World Wide Web, and we take these “hot links” that allow us to skip from one web site to another for granted. Even traditional linear forms of text like books are likely these days to be converted to eBook formats containing hypertext elements. Right now, for example, I am reading an eBook version of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle (originally published in 1860) and I can turn any word in the text into a hyperlink simply by putting my finger on it and then jump to a dictionary that will define the word for me.
This last example highlights an important organizing principle of hypertext: It does not just take me from Darwin to the dictionary, but also makes it easy for me to jump back to my place in The Voyage of the Beagle when I’m finished with the dictionary. My hyper-learning shares this characteristic. It is not a chaotic and unfocused shooting off willy-nilly in all directions; I keep coming back to my starting places, linking the new information and ideas with the old. And this process of linking ideas to one another in unexpected ways is both creative and exhilarating.
I now realize that, even in my years of more focused, linear learning, hyper-learning has always been a part of my learning process. As a scholar, my favorite part of research was the early stages of exploring a new topic, following bibliographic references in new directions that enabled me to link seemingly unconnected ideas to one another. As a teacher, my favorite way of organizing classroom learning was a discussion process that began with questions about the reading developed by students. One of the requirements was that each of those questions had to link the reading for the day to some previous course material. We began class with a blackboard covered with such questions and then followed our discussion from one question to another, weaving a fabric that linked together the links that students had found in the reading. This discussion process was exciting, and it often produced unexpected new ideas and insights. On many days, I left class feeling as though I was intellectually flying. One of my worries about retirement was that I would lose that experience of intellectual exhilaration. But it turns out that one of the gifts of retirement is the time to indulge my love of hyper-learning.