Cultures of Learning

Originally published on The Pastry Box September 3, 2015.

In his TED talk, Paper Towns, John Green talks about cultures of learning. He did not enter a culture of learning until high school, and from his point of view education until that point was a series of obstacles to overcome. For many, it seems, the culture of learning — of desiring to learn — starts at school.

For me it began at home. I can’t say exactly how I know this, except that whenever I asked a question that was vaguely historical or scientific, my folks would do their best to answer it, and if they didn’t know they’d call a family member who might. The TV ran much more PBS than it did CBS, NBC, or ABC. The bathroom magazine rack held a few comic strip anthologies, a book of bathroom humor I wasn’t supposed to understand (and mostly didn’t), and at least one copy of Reader’s Digest.

Then, as now, the household bathroom was as much a refuge for five minutes peace away from the hustle of a household as it was, well, its intended purposes. You could get away with locking yourself in a room for ten or twenty minutes without question, even at the age of ten or twelve, so long as someone else didn’t need that room’s particular functions.

When I was old enough to understand the written word and humor, I started reading Reader’s Digest for the quips that filled the space between the article’s end and the page end. (There was no white space in a Reader’s Digest. That lesson, which I absorbed unknowingly, has colored my design work in not-glorious ways ever since.) The problem was I’d often find myself reading the last paragraph of the article accidentally, then going back to the beginning and reading the whole thing. This led to reading whole chunks of the magazine. Although I never snatched one out of the mail as soon as it arrived, I was always relieved to see that a new issue was tucked in the magazine stand.

A condensed book at the back of the Reader’s Digest got me interested in neuroscience and neurosurgery, and for a while that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’m pretty confident it also introduced me to Dr. Oliver Sacks, who in turn introduced me to all the ways a brain can go horribly, or humorously, wrong. Dr. Sacks was a neurologist and author who treated patients for everything from aphasia to Tourettes and beyond; he told stories of how the autonomous acts of the brain we take for granted sometimes stop working, changing everything about how we perceive the world.

I could write thousands of words on Oliver Sacks, but to do so, first I’d go reread all the books of his I own, then I’d go hunt down the rest and read those, and then I would write.

But Oliver Sacks died today, and my heart is too empty to do that. My ribs are on too tight, my chest hurts, and I wish Oliver Sacks was still alive so he could explain how a thought entering my brain about a stranger I’d never met could cause the physical symptoms of grief.

Dr. Sacks was an avid participant in a culture of learning. He opened his July 24 essay in The New York Times with a description of his thirst to learn:

I look forward eagerly, almost greedily, to the weekly arrival of journals like Nature and Science, and turn at once to articles on the physical sciences — not, as perhaps I should, to articles on biology and medicine. It was the physical sciences that provided my first enchantment as a boy.

He was, in short, a learner. But one of the common side effects of learning is teaching; the discovery of a particularly delicious sip of the universe must be shared with those others who thirst for its knowledge. A neurologist and author, Dr. Sacks’ described the strange lands he explored to an audience with less knowledge than he in ways that they could understand and relate to. In their obituary of the man, The New York Times noted his desire to share not just the causes and symptoms of neurological mysteries, but how they affected the human beings who were involved.

Describing his patients’ struggles and sometimes uncanny gifts, Dr. Sacks helped introduce syndromes like Tourette’s or Asperger’s to a general audience. But he illuminated their characters as much as their conditions; he humanized and demystified them.

This is a gift of learning that we in the User Experience world — or really in any world where we represent the interests of others — can share. It isn’t enough to describe the quantitative effects of a poorly-designed form in terms of adoption rates and sales funnels and drop-out rates. We need to make our “users”, the people we represent, feel real to everyone who shapes their experience. It isn’t enough to draw up a persona that indicates what segment the user inhabits, which demographics they meet, and how the product or process fits into their goals. We need to illustrate how it should fit into the real person’s life, and how it absolutely shouldn’t fit into their lives.

Ultimately, we don’t have “users”. We don’t have “patients”. We don’t have “sales leads”. We have people. Dr. Sacks knew that, and he taught me that, though at the time I thought he was just telling me stories about patients and medicine and science and this weird universe we live in.

John Green explains that his culture of learning as an adult has shifted from the classroom to the Internet, from inquisitive people he’s met in person to inquisitive commenters on Youtube (yes they exist) and the living learning space they inhabit.

For me, too, the culture of learning has shifted. I no longer discover new worlds of interest from the magazine rack in the bathroom. (I don’t even subscribe to magazines.) I still read voraciously, probably a half dozen articles a day, but they come from blogs and journals and publications that almost exclusively publish online. (How much learning still occurs in the bathroom I leave to the reader to infer.)

I learned of Dr. Oliver Sacks in Reader’s Digest. I learned of the good man’s death this morning in my Twitter feed, where I learn almost everything these days that turns out to be important.

It’s the phrase “I learned” that I hope he would have approved of most.