It’s true, I do find myself apologizing for my tendency to wander off topic, picking up some apparently tangential thread and tracing it back to the extent of my knowledge on the subject. However, I’m not planning on making an apology of that sort here, but rather an apologia, or defense of the pedagogical value of departing from the outline.
Apology, by the way, comes to English from Greek (and subsequently Latin) apologia, which breaks down pretty easily into apo– “from” + logos “word” or “speech.” The original meaning was a spoken defense, and that meaning remains in both apologia and its English translation apology. By the 18th Century the English word had come to be used more in the sense of expressing regret for wrong-doing. What happened to this word to turn its meaning from defending the correctness of one’s position, to something almost entirely opposite, claiming one’s mistake? It makes the word into an antagonym.
…I apologize. That was a rabbit hole.
In my classes, and in KTS workshops we’ve taken to naming these departures rabbit holes. I’m not entirely certain how we came to choose the term, but it clearly refers to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.
Alice’s father, Henry Liddell, you may be interested to know, was the co-author of the great Greek-English Lexicon which is available online thanks to the Thesaurus Linguae Grecae, a research program housed on the campus of the University of California, Irvine…
Ok. No silliness after this line:
I’m cautious about stepping into rabbit holes, because there are important topics to cover and a careful plan to incrementally guide students toward greater awareness, and skill. If I keep fumfering on about the Great Vowel Shift, then there is a real danger that I’ll reach the end of our time together without having progressed toward those goals. Nobody wants that. Well, maybe that student in the corner who hasn’t been doing his homework, and hopes I’ll forget about the quiz. Almost nobody wants the class to be dithered away in irrelevancies.
And this is where my apologia comes in. Though staying on topic is a value that I uphold, I do allow myself to be tempted off the path by rabbit holes. After the class or workshop when I’m wondering why I didn’t get to everything I wanted to cover, I look at the time spent down rabbit holes and ask myself if I done right or no, but it’s always a question of balancing the cost of not progressing through the material with the benefit of the fall down the well. And there are very real benefits to wandering off the path.
One benefit is that this sort of public woolgathering leads to my saying some things out loud that I haven’t planned or fully thought through. In the process of emptying out the accumulation of random facts, borrowed concepts and sawdust that fill my brain, I will occasionally put some thoughts together in an interesting way. Certainly I also succeed in speaking nonsense a good proportion of the time, but once or twice, I manage to make connections that are happy surprises, and I think that the public nature of the ramble contributes to the potential for these events.
But by far, the most important benefit to my allowing myself to be distracted by mental sparklies is that I am modeling something that is essential to the education of artists, and central to the KTS way: CURIOSITY. When I interrupt my lecture on ‘aspiration’ to talk about the etymological overlap between conspiracy and spiritual, and how the words are like fossils, or rather like ongoing embodiments of a fundamental human intuition about the way the movement of our breath recapitulates the experience of thought and feeling, or when I pivot from that to mention that our sense of the match-up between the shape of the words and their meaning is called iconicity, and by the way, Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger obviously spoke Latin, so if he said the word conspiratio, it would have had the same iconicity as it would have for the actor saying conspiracy in the first production of Julius Caesar or for you when you say it in a production of the play today… there’s something in that set of detours that may be of value to an actor considering how speaking is part of their art.
I think, and surely I also flatter and mislead myself, that my joy in running through the rabbit warren, accosting words and demanding that they explain themselves, is something I want my students to see. I want them to get curious because they can see how much fun it is to be curious. And that, I think, is worth falling behind in my outline.