Look beyond first impressions

Learning to observe deeply is an invaluable tool in any field

May 02, 2020 10:25 pm | Updated 10:26 pm IST



“Pay attention!” Almost all students have been at the receiving end of this injunction, at some point in their academic lives. But, what do teachers really mean by this directive? When teachers observe a student gazing at a sparrow perched on the ledge outside, or find two pupils exchanging furtive whispers, they issue this command to redirect students to focus on what they are teaching. Essentially, teachers are exhorting students to stop attending to other ‘distractions’ — be it a feathered creature or a friend — and listen to what they are saying. Implicit in this command is the assumption that paying attention is a choice. Teachers expect students to focus on what they are saying over something else.

Power of art

While psychologists and mindfulness researchers have contributed significantly to our understanding of attention, another group of individuals provides unique insights into how educators may expand, hone and steady this fleeting faculty. Artists and art educators, whose perceptual skills are heightened by their vocation, provide nuanced and novel perspectives on what it means to pay attention. This is the first in a three-part series on how the arts can expand and accentuate our powers of concentration. I use the term ‘arts’ to include both visual and performing arts.

In an article in Harvard Magazine, Jennifer Roberts, Professor of Art History at Harvard University, states that she engages in ‘temporal’ planning when designing curricula for her courses. As an instructor, she tries to ‘engineer’ the “pace and tempo of the learning experiences” in order to promote “deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.” Given that our hustle-and-bustle world values rapidity over reflection and acceleration over deliberation, Roberts makes a concerted effort to get her students to “slow down”.

One of the requirements, for every course she teaches, involves writing an “intensive research paper” on any single art object. Besides reading about the painting or sculpture, students are required to visit the local museum and spend an entire three hours observing the piece. During this time, they may note down their observations, opinions and conjectures.

Unsurprisingly, students rebel initially when given this task. But after completing it, many are astounded by the “potentials this process unlocked”. Roberts argues that we generally believe that “vision is immediate”. What we look at is what there is. However, by persisting in this exercise, students realise that many details and features take time to reveal themselves. As a result, they appreciate the fact that looking and seeing are not synonymous.

Roberts acknowledges that learning to observe deeply is an invaluable tool in any field, not only art history. When students realise that first appearances can often be shallow or even misleading, they appreciate the riches that “critical attention” and “patient investigation” can unearth. In an age that increasingly demands instantaneous feedback, understanding that delay can sometimes bestow blessings is indeed an invaluable lesson. To uncover hidden layers, we need to press pause and propagate patience.

The writer is Director, PRAYATNA. arunasankara @gmail.com

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