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Lesson, The Second: The What, Why, and How of Vocabulary

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In the last lecture we covered the basics of spaced repetition and self-learning, and in this lesson I hope to move on to the very sirius subject of vocabulary and how to tackle it.

First of all, vocabulary is useful in a pure and economic sense. Research seems to show that success and money in our society go hand in hand with great vocabularies. Actually, research suggests that vocabulary is the number one predictor of occupational achievement.

Of course, repeatedly throwing around vocabulary words that nobody in your audience knows is just annoying and distasteful. If you’re pitching to a niche audience, using words the layman doesn’t understand could make sense and even be appreciated, but even in those cases people can sense when you’re trying to use a 10 dollar word more to seem smart and less because it furthers understanding. On the other hand, whatever kind of audience you’re pitching to, occasionally throwing in an appropriately used rareish vocabulary word could be a good move. Learning new words at a reasonable pace might be an interesting, interactive little subplot for even a very broad audience, especially if the words are humorous or culturally useful in some way. Anyway, words are useful tools even in the absence of an audience or interlocutor.

Individual words serve to organize and represent some kind of phenomenon of some degree of complexity. A sentence is made up of a usefully organized series of these individual words, and that also serves to organize some sort of complexity and chaos brought up by the individual words. In short, words tell stories…so do sentences, even if it is a small one. All stories of any length are simply a long string of individual sentences…. shorter stories strung end to end like the beads on an abacus.

Take a good gander at a dictionary, well any good dictionary I should say (you’re looking for 8/10 or better), and what you’ve got is a long, alphabetical list of short stories commonly told in a language. These are useful, fundamental building blocks for larger stories that you can tell. Because words are valuable not just intrinsically but as tools for thought, it makes a large vocabulary useful even for writers who are not trying to impress audiences by using big words.

You need to make love to your dictionary, but not like a cheesy pick-up-artist who just calls every other weekend when he isn’t busy with bigger, better thangs. You need to take your dictionary home every day and marry her and have kids by reproducing with your dictionary through this fancy new midwife service called an SRS and bare with me here..

There are several kinds of vocabulary flashcard babies that you can have by way of your SRS. One important type of flashcard baby is where you start with the definition on the front side of the card and produce the word on the backside of the card. Here’s an example for the word ‘belabor’:

Front: A verb meaning to argue or elaborate (a subject) in sexcessive detail.

Back: belabor

Of course the actual definition of the word doesn’t really have an “s” at the beginning of the word “excessive”, but that was actually a real keystroke error that I made while I was creating that flashcard some time ago. Just a little evidence of the fun you can have with flashcard-making-as-a-hobby (FMAAH; and no, you probably won’t ever see this acronym again).

In good example sentences, there is a certain quality about the rest of the sentence that sort of hints at the redacted vocabulary word, and this is a quality to look for in potential mates… I mean example sentences.

An interesting quirk of making flashcards of example sentences for vocabulary words is that it can become quite a political endeavor. With lots of widely used words this is hardly the case. However, sometimes…words, especially newer ones, are limited enough in use and scope as to make which example sentence or sentences you pick an important decision.

Just remember that a new word is only as useful as the idea behind it. Learning new words is kind of like gambling or investing; statistically, you’re going to make some bad bets, but you’re going to win eventually if you keep playing.

I took my work, cut it down into this bite-sized, abridged version, and have decided to make it freely available in various places o’er the Interwebz. Permit me to be blunt: I worked really hard on the full version, and it will soon be is available in sundry formats in various places including Amazon, Smashwords, and Udemy. Especially since a lot of good stuff got cut out in order to make this abridged version possible, I urge you to give the full version your serious consideration.

Tally ho!

Photo Mar 18, 8 48 30 PM


Lesson, The First: Introduction

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Hello everybody! My name is Dave.

I took my work, cut it down into this bite-sized, abridged version, and have decided to make it freely available in various places o’er the Interwebz. Permit me to be blunt: I worked really hard on the full version, and it will soon be is available in sundry formats in various places including Amazon, Smashwords, and Udemy. Especially since a lot of good stuff got cut out in order to make this abridged version possible, I urge you to give the full version your serious consideration.

First, I’d like to pontificate a little bit on the word “autodidact.” The word autodidact, or autodidacticism, simply refers to teaching oneself. I’m sure you realize that ultimately the effort and discipline required for any successful educational endeavor really has its origin in yourself. Whatever your method of learning and wherever it’s happening whether it’s in a classroom, the library, or in your bedroom in your pajamas, only you can do it. You can’t passively download knowledge into your brain, and neither can a teacher. If you hope to benefit from this course, it depends on what you put into it. I at least hope to offer you an escape from the bland old flavor of advice you are probably accustomed to hearing.

I’d like to stress that this course/book, no matter how much I try to outright dissuade you right here, will inevitably come across as preachy to some of you. You’re probably going to wonder why I have such an obsession with something called spaced repetition, and, believe me, it is an obsession. Why am I focusing so much on spaced repetition flashcards to the detriment of other methods and processes? What other options am I leaving out or just not exploring?

These are not bad questions. The reason for this obsessive focus, which is in some ways deliberately ignorant of other methods of learning and creativity, is that the other possible methods and processes are already everywhere in vogue. You will have no problem tracking down advice of the traditional flavor on the Internet or in any kind of school or academy. I am not trying to mislead you. I am just trying to give a fair voicing to an intriguing, well-researched method that has not enjoyed so much playtime in institutions or even in individual’s lives. I suppose I should say up front that spaced repetition won’t be the only thing we’ll talk about in this course either; we’re also going to talk about processes above and beyond that particular practice.

You may be skeptical of the notion of teaching and learning how to “play” with words. If it is “play” we are after, then whence cometh the reason for the kinds of discipline and methods we will be speaking about so seriously? If it’s all in fun, then who cares about taking all of this so seriously?

It’s all worth it for the same reason that professional athletes feel it’s worth it to spend all of those looooooong loooooooooooong hours of practice in the name of “playing” their sports. Yes, it is still a sport. Yes, it is still a game. And so there is a non-serious, fun element to the whole charade. However, any game or sport has an element of seriousness where the players are in a sense following a script of sorts. If you love that aspect of it, then it makes all of the deliberate teaching, and coaching, and learning, and practicing worth it in the end.

The basic concept behind this course is derived from that adage ancient: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a really long time.” Or something like that.

Um…basically, I could tell you lots of different things about books that people have really liked over the years, and maybe you would even enjoy my insight. But if I left you without a concrete plan for how to improve your own literacy, I wouldn’t be anything more than a scam artist. In this day and age literacy, even more than the ability to catch your own fish probably, is really a vital life and social skill.

You’ve probably encountered the claim that you shouldn’t bother memorizing things —- just practice, practice, practice. And maybe that advice fits well within an institutional or organizational setting. You know, high output might often be rewarded at school or work with good institutional credit, both in terms of traditional school credit and just in terms of some kind of formal acknowledgment that you’ve done your part. However, not all institutional credit is universally accepted. It’s not the most liquid social asset or ability. The social skills and the actual knowledge and stuff that’s stored in your memory, that is transferable to any institution or group of people you might find yourself within even after your bank account is drained.

Another reason that you should discount the “don’t memorize things just practice, practice, practice” advice is that it’s usually outdated. If you ever hear or read that advice, remember that that advice originated in a medieval and probably primitive and upsetting setting which was or is in some way ignorant of current learning technologies and methods. There was a time when trying to outright memorize a bunch of stuff was a plodding and pathetic waste of time, but that time is most definitely not right now.

We are going to put together a sort of writer’s or artist’s or word smith’s arsenal or toolbox, one that exists not just as a list somewhere on a computer or on paper, but in your memory. Don’t be intimidated by the word memorization either… the memorization methods we’ll be talking about are actually quite easy and fun and effective. In this case, outright knowing the words, rhetorical figures, and tropes that we will discuss will in a sense make you a kind of literary architect.

With that in mind, it is helpful to acknowledge that effective memorization and practice are not antithetical. Actually, they are one and the same! In fact, practicing with some of the memory techniques that we’re about to discuss like mnemonics and spaced repetition flashcard system is more efficient than limiting yourself to only writing essays, for example. I would say that memorization without active practice is really just brainwashing.

And let’s talk about brainwashing in the context of flashcards, which is something we’ll be talking about a lot in this course. Really, that’s all the front side of a flashcard is: a brainwashing device. I have to give credit for this idea in part to the inspirational Khatzumoto, a handsome blogger who writes about learning, Japanese, and spaced repetition. Through repeated exposure to the front side of the card, you are trained to notice those particular patterns of chaos, entropy, disarray, confusion in the real world, and when you notice them, to mentally or verbally produce that bit of insight on the back side of the card. Ideally, that bit of insight will help you better understand the material on the front side.

If there is anything like a requirement for this course, it would be a spaced repetition system of flashcards. Spaced repetition systems are a feat that can be accomplished without software, although software is the most efficient and probably effective way to go about it. In fact, spaced repetition software guarantees a retention rate of about 90-95% for decently formatted material that you put into it – as long as you do your daily reviews. The practice is based on decades of solid research that you can look up on your own time, but I give a better summary in the full version.

Essentially, you can reliably predict when you will forget facts, and that is useful because the ideal time to review a fact is right before you forget it. You save time by only reviewing flashcards when they really need to be reviewed. The advantage of this is that, even after you’ve accumulated thousands upon thousands of flashcards and facts, you’ll still have a manageable chunk of daily reviews.

Personally, I use the open-source spaced repetition system called Anki. It’s free, and so are a lot of other good ones like Mnemosyne, so feel free to experiment. It doesn’t matter so much which one you use. Only that you use one on a regular basis. Here, we’re interested in how to use spaced repetition and the other processes we’ll discuss for going above and beyond average literacy in our dominant language.

There are a few simple rules to keep in mind when using spaced repetition software, many of which originated in the writings of the creator of Supermemo; these are the important ones that I can personally affirm and emphasize based on experience.

1) Use it every day. There’s really no point in using one if you don’t use it everyday, and the discipline will be good for you.

2) Always try to make the back side of the flashcard, the side that you have to produce from memory, as short as possible. This is to make it easier on your memory, and also just to prevent ugly, difficult cards from clogging your reviews.

3) Never add too many cards at one time. I often use a feature in Anki that limits the new cards that I actually learn and put into my review cycle to 15-20 new cards per day; I’m not sure if other spaced repetition software has that kind of functionality, but usually there’s some way to suspend cards I think so that you can control how fast or slow your stock of new cards trickles into your review cycle.

4) Don’t memorize stuff you don’t understand, yet. Plain and simple.

5) Some material just isn’t suited to being memorized in an SRS, so don’t do it. Often, this will be things like lists. Memorizing lists in an SRS is really just a hassle. Instead, you should start to compile a set of lists that you derive from studying to supplement your SRS learning.

I would even, and in fact I do, keep lists of some of the words, rhetorical figures, and tropes that I do memorize with my SRS. That’s because memorizing a figure of speech or rhetoric, their usages, and interesting words will actually make a list of those things way shorter and more useful.

Keep in mind that a part of this course will be me giving you examples for how to format your cards and notes, so don’t sweat it if you’re feeling a little bit overwhelmed right now (you can sweat that but don’t sweat it!). That’s something I feel is lacking in the spaced repetition community. Spaced repetition community members often share flashcards and flashcard decks, and Anki even has a platform where you can download decks made by other people. But this system in my experience is kind of broken. Downloading other people’s flashcards just kinda sucks. They’re often not formatted well. They’re always way weirder to learn than my own flashcards that I make.

What I hope to do with this course is give you more options for how to build your own flashcard deck without necessarily outsourcing the role of flashcard creation to the community of people who do create decks for download. Since the ultimate source of the material for this course is my own experiences studying, you can pretty much view this entire course as an extended annotation of my own personal flashcard deck.

Thoreau once said that if you see a man approach you trying thoroughly to do you good, you should run for your life. In this case, I am confident that you’ll find this guide useful because, first and foremost, it began as an endeavor to track and develop my own writing and learning skills.

The trajectory of the course is probably going to be as follows. First we’ll talk about vocabulary, or the individual words which are the building blocks of linguistic communication. After that we’ll talk about some figures of speech and rhetorical devices which operate at the level of spelling, words, phrases, and passages. Then we’ll move on to a subject only slightly broader, and that’s style constraints, especially as they pertain to things like nonfiction, fiction, and other things. Lastly, we’ll deal with tropes and plot and character devices which operate at the level of different narratives, stories, and genres. These aren’t exactly wall-of-china-like demarcations either, you understand. These are just very vague guidelines to direct your thinking and studying, and the theme of all of them is buttressing our word-hoards with memory technology so they stand the test of time.

Don’t forget to check out the full version on Amazon, Smashwords, and Udemy. Especially since a lot of good stuff got cut out in order to make this abridged version possible, I urge you to give the full version your serious consideration.

Photo Mar 18, 8 48 30 PM