The Art of Listening

Clocks turned back, the big thing about early mornings now is that they’re lighter. That’s the point of the mass exercise in self-delusion that we do twice a year, isn’t it? (Though I’ve heard rumours some countries are stopping this quaint practice as it ‘interferes with the markets.’ Which will of course never do.)

Anyway, after some very early morning reading I set off to walk into university on this Monday morning because who wouldn’t? It’s only about 3 miles from where I live, the walking always does me good, and it gives me time to think.

Time to think.

Because one of the many things I’ve learned in the five weeks  since I’ve become a student again is that it’s surprisingly easy not to think. There’s so much to do on this Social Methods MA leading into a PhD that it would be easy for me to virtuously fill my time with all kinds of busy things and yet avoid thinking very much at all.

There’s: follow-up actions and exercises from last week’s lectures; getting notes and files ready for this week’s; plus the recommended readings, always more readings; then searching and picking subjects and research studies for all the assessment essays I’ll need to do over the next couple of months; together with defining and sorting what my thesis might be; together with its ethical clearing process. Much of which needs doing, kind of,  by this Wednesday when this week’s lectures kick off again.

So up early as I always am these days I’d virtuously thought:

‘I’ll get into the library good and early and get all of that going.’ Until I looked out of the window and saw the after dawn sky starting to turn blue.

At which point I decided to walk in this morning and give myself time to think. Thinking particularly that there’s no point doing all this reading I’m doing if I don’t give myself time to think about it. Particularly about some of it that’s really getting under my skin and into my imagination.

I’ve already written about C. Wright Mills and it was hearing about him that’s led me, with guidance, to some more recent people whose work is interesting me too. There’s been Nick Gane, Bev Skeggs and, walking in with me this morning, the thoughts of Les Back. His book ‘The Art of Listening’ being the second sociology book in a fortnight that I’ve read late into the night and early in the mornings like it’s, well, a proper book.

In fact he begins it by mentioning a proper book I read years ago, ‘If no one speaks of remarkable things’ by Jon McGregor. And about how careful listening and things like photography, stories, street markets and hearing about people’s tattoos might lead to the kind of sociology people might want to read and find relevant and useful.

‘In a sense, the task is to link individual biographies with larger social and historical forces and the public questions that are raised in their social, economic and political organisation. It is the search for remarkable things that are otherwise not remarked upon.’

That paragraph being what pulled me into the book, got most of it read before I’d left the house this morning, and kept me thinking about listening all the way along Smithdown Road, Crown Street and Myrtle Street until I arrived here in a quiet corner of the Eleanor Rathbone Building to finish what I already know will be just a first reading.

Some of the things Les Back says near the end of his book, knowing the virtuous busyness the likes of me might be facing, are these:

  • ‘Trust your own interest
  • Keep a ledger of your thinking
  • Read promiscuously with an open mind
  • And don’t become addicted to the library’

So they’re pretty much the things I’ve done this morning, as it turns out. Including writing all this, here in the ledger of my thinking.

This afternoon and into the evening I’ll go into the library and get on with all that other reading and preparation I wrote about earlier. But this morning I’ve enjoyed this walking and thinking promiscuously.

Because I think I might be at the beginning of being onto something here. I don’t know what it is yet, but I know I won’t get there if I don’t give myself times like this morning to walk, think and read stuff like this about what sociology is for:

‘We live in dark times but sociology – as a listening art – can provide resources to help us live through them, while pointing to the possibility of a different kind of future.’

That’s the kind of thing I’ve come here to think about.

Big thanks to Paul Jones and Kirsteen Paton for the particular guidance mentioned here. And to so many others in the Sociology and History Departments where I’m so enjoying the thinking of all this and more.

More of my writing about university here.

 

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