Groupthink Groupies, Behold the Cipher

I keep hearing about Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. For a while I thought this book was called “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” but that’s just the sexy underside of her argument and thus the title her New York Times editor chose for her conveniently timed op-ed from last month.

In an interview, Ms. “Descartes” Cain claims that “in order to know what you really think about something or someone, you need solitude to do it, almost by definition.” As you might have inferred from my hostile tone, I find this preposterous. As a writer, and therefore a person who spends a lot of time typing alone (like right now), I’m intrigued as to why I find Ms. Cain’s claims preposterous. While I definitely have not read and do not plan on reading her book, between the op-ed and some interviews I suspect that my issue is this: while I understand Ms. Cain’s enthusiasm for solitude–indeed, my fiction-writing zone demands total, solitudinous silence–I disagree with her takedown of collaboration as creatively and intellectually unproductive. And I think her invocation of Orwell’s 1984 is ridiculous. Also Eurocentric. But let’s explore.

In my courses we do a lot of small group work. This abundance is a hangover from a summer I spent teaching English in China during college, when the point of every lesson plan was to keep our students jabbering for as long as possible. I was told that a language learner needs to say a new vocabulary word 7 times before she internalizes it. While my current students speak fluent English, they are not fluent in their critical reading, thinking or speaking skills. Class is an opportunity to redirect them to the text, to ask them to use specific language instead of vague pronouns and generalizations, to encourage them to refer to a text’s author instead of claiming, “It says.”

Often during small group work there is a lull: one group after another stops talking, though of course there is always more to talk about. In these silent moments I do my best to stay totally disengaged from my students. I stare into space, or page through my book for key quotes to return to if conversation falters when we come back together as a class. Slowly but surely, someone in one of the groups thinks of something else to say. The students realize they have to keep thinking, that I am not about to interrupt them with my own take on the text. And so more of them pipe in. Soon everyone is talking again, exploring the content of a chapter or analyzing the lyrics of a song.

Against the overlapping sounds of groups ebbing in and out of conversation, I find myself thinking of priming, a psychological concept I learned about as a senior in high school. I remember priming as a cognitive effect by which hearing a certain word–before a memory exam, for example–will increase the likelihood that a subject remembers that particular word later. I also remember reading of an experiment wherein subjects, asked to define an ambiguous word like “Mercury,” tended to vary their answers according to whether they’d been primed with evocations of planets or thermometers.

In high school Psychology class I remember feeling that priming was a kind of cheating, a sort of hypnotic trick wherein subjects did not know they were learning the right answers in advance. But now as a teacher, when I watch conversations sweep through a silent classroom like a brushfire, and I hear similar concepts and page numbers flicker between groups like flames, I do not feel that my students are cheating. Instead, I feel glad that their proximity to one another allows as many of them as possible to experience the spark of recognition at pinpointing an important idea or a telling quote.

Today, the small group work in question was to close read the third chapter title in Tricia Rose’s Black Noise, “Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, Orality and Black Cultural Practice in Rap Music.” As my students revisited this chapter, which they’d read in advance, words and phrases hung in the air: repetition, sampling, Western music, African diaspora, 808s. As conversation lulled, I scanned the chapter myself, looking for concepts my students might have missed. My eyes fell on a quote from Christopher Small describing repetition in African music (which Rose sees regenerated in hiphop):

A call-and-response sequence may go on for several hours, with apparently monotonous repetition of the same short phrase sung by a leader and answered by the chorus, but in fact subtle variations are going on all the time, not only in the melodic lines themselves but also in their relation to the complex cross-rhythms in the accompanying drumming or hand clapping…The repetitions of African music have a function in time which is the reverse of (Western classical) music–to dissolve the past and the future into one eternal present, in which the passing of time is no longer noticed. (qtd in Rose 66-67)

As I read, my students’ voices rose up again around me: first one, then two, until the whole class was talking–that is, dialoguing, arguing, learning, teaching, grappling with evidence. So I listened, glad to be the sole introvert among talkers.

What's wrong with a lil' drum circle? #OWS

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