Saturday, February 14, 2015

Sorry: brain full. Try again later.

This semester I'm continuing my Italian study with private lessons. This initially seemed easier than what I was doing in the fall, and in most ways it is. I meet my professor once a week for two hours, which means that I get about as much instructional time but waste less time commuting; I also have less work to prepare in advance. And since it's just the two of us, it's all quality time: there are no moments when I'm zoning out or only half listening while one of my classmates is on the spot.

That's also the problem. Two hours is a lot of time. Just as my body is not ready to run 9-minute miles for two hours straight, my brain is not ready to speak Italian for two hours straight. This week I'd read a couple of articles in the Italian press about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, so after 45 minutes on grammar we turned to that. Then we broadened our discussion to EU immigration policies more generally and how one strikes a balance between border protection and humanitarian relief. This was hard, but I was pretty game for a while. Around the time that my instructor turned the conversation to Obama's executive action on immigration, however, and asked me to compare the American and Italian situations and outline the differences between the Democratic and Republican positions, my brain stalled out.

Partly it was the complexity of the material, but mostly it was just fatigue: at a certain point I was unable to access even the most basic vocabulary or pronounce words I'd been saying just fine twenty minutes earlier. In fact, I've never before felt quite this level of mental collapse--though those times I've been awake for 30 hours for a complicated transatlantic journey and then had to negotiate an unfamiliar municipal transportation system might come close.

I recovered, of course, but the experience has made me think a little harder about the way I schedule and manage instructional time in my own classes. I've always been mindful of the kind of fatigue produced by monotony (sitting too long in one place or doing exactly the same kind of work for 60 or 90 minutes), especially in lower-level classes or classes that meet only once a week, but I haven't thought much about the fatigue caused by brain overload. Maybe a student isn't staring off into space or typing on her phone beneath her desk because she's uninterested, but because she can't absorb any more information right now.

Not that the two are mutually exclusive.


Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I have exactly the same experience when I serve as chair of an NIH grant peer review panel. The chair is responsible for overseeing the discussion of each grant, taking notes about the content of the discussion, and then orally summarizing that discussion before moving on to the next grant. And this goes on for about 25 grants over the course of a ten hour day. By the last few grants, my brain is pretty much shutting down, and I could barely tell you my own name.

What Now? said...

I'm at the earliest stages of learning Hebrew -- still struggling with the decoding, miles away from understanding what I'm reading -- and my brain gets worn out after about 15 minutes!

undine said...

I have had the same experience: you just can't take in one more thing. It happens in meetings, too, as CPP says. And I've had visual overload when going to art museums.

Flavia said...

CPP & Undine:

Yes, you're right--I have a similar experience when I schedule too many student paper conferences in a row. I'm perky and helpful for the first several drafts/students. . . but long about #10 I'm a blithering mess.

Jeff said...

Flavia, for several years now, I've been doing the same thing with German—two-hour lessons with a private tutor—so I fully understand the sort of brain-seize you're describing. Did you try one-hour lessons, and did you find them as unsatisfying as I did? (At the 60-minute mark, I find myself wondering just how far I can push myself; before the second hour is up, the answer is clear.)

Flavia said...


That's a good question! I should note that we're not talking for the full two hours--we do grammar work and that kind of thing for a while at first--but this past week we got cut off 15-20 min early, and I definitely felt as though I had only just started to get my brain properly in gear.

So I'm not sure what my ideal length is--and what counts as being too short and what too long--but I think you're right that there's some length that feels unsatisfactory and insufficient and some length that feels like you've been put through a mental wringer.