Teach Yourself! 7 Lessons in Self-Education

Thursday, February 2, 2012

My English advisor often tells me that you're only going to learn what you teach yourself - formalized lesson plans and reading lists are great and all, but if you're not engaging with the material on your own, it won't really stick. And I think that's very important in relation to the articles I've written this week on Asian Americans; that material rarely gets taught in the classroom, but is more often something that we have to approach on our own. So, today I want to generalize the process of learning something new. Whether that's learning about the social history of Asian Americans in the US or learning how to roller skate or learning a new language, here are 7 tips to getting yourself on the road to learn.

1. Pick a broad subject.
I read a lot of anthologies. Short essays are easily digestable if you don't know where to start or what piques your interest. If you're interested in feminism, for instance, you could check out Click: Moments When We Knew We Were Feminists to get a broad idea of the thing. You could pick up a book of short stories on flash fiction, if that's your deal. The point of picking a broad topic is that you don't have to get all the materials and dedicate your life to it right away. Take your time, see what you like of it, and then move into the next step.

2. Mark what you're most interested in within that subject and start to focus.
If you have your book of short essays or your playlist of songs that you'd like to learn to play or your cookbook full of recipes, start making little notes about everything that gets you excited. Maybe it's the idea of making Poptarts at home or the subject of aliens that really gets you going. Who knows? Mark it, read more, move on to the next one.

3. Look at your resources.
This answers the question: "Where do I go from here?" Books are especially good for this, but internet resources do it as well. Check out what the recommended readings are or the sources that your book uses, look at the backlinks and the referred sites that the blog you're reading tells you, and then you can establish a group of sources you may want to look into in the future.

4. Create a "curriculum" with soft goals and manifestations.
I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I love lists. I have a to-read list that would be miles long if I printed it out. A curriculum is just one type of tiered list, so once you have all your resources going, start setting short-term and long-term goals for your learning process. Do you want to learn that language by May? Pick a date and work back from it on how much work you want to accomplish by that time, and try to honor it as best you can.

5. Work slowly.
Here's where the "as best you can" part really comes in. No one is looking to grade your performance on things you teach yourself, which can be both freeing and horrifying. No one's giving me pressure to learn this? Why would I set a deadline at all then? The simple answer is that without exquisite pressure, it may not ever get done. However, the flipside of that is to give yourself the space to learn slowly, to drop the work when other parts of your life (which are still going on, believe it or not) take precedent over your own self-education. Check in with yourself and don't feel guilty if you don't accomplish everything you set out to.

6. Synthesize information.
When I make connections between materials I study, I get way too excited. I babble on at the speed of light and people sometimes look at me with wide frightened eyes as I start making wild gesticulations and don't pause for whole minutes to take a breath. Bringing together information, I believe, is what cements it in your mind. It's what gives you the ability to put your learning goals to practical use when they might not otherwise seem connected. I encourage you to start learning one subject, find a thread within that subject that seems tangential, and follow the thread. It may take you to a whole new area of interest you had never expected.

7. Produce your own "final project."
When these take the form of an exam or final paper, they don't seem as fun. But, if you're learning on your own, then there's no reason to make a final project as dull as all that. Think of artsy ways to show off your new skill, talent, or ideas. Write about it, perform somewhere, hold a conversation with someone in another language. It doesn't have to be big and glamorous, but doing a final project is like a small ritual that marks the point when you feel accomplished in your work.

I wish you the best of luck with your self-education and all the fruits of the process. Let me know in the comments which one of these tips is helpful to you (if any) and what you like to learn about!