City of Solitude

Many people have noticed and  commented on recent article in the New York Times on the value of solitude in creative work.

In the article, Susan Cain remarks;

… the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

She goes on to compare productivity in workplaces with and without private space, and presents some evidence that privacy improves the quality of work.

Susan Cain’s thoughts merit consideration here at CUNY, particularly in those fields, like math, where lonely cogitation is the norm.  After all, we find ourselves embedded in a seething metropolis, where it isn’t always easy to be alone.

The organized and the disciplined, those who already know how to study, will no doubt seek out private warrens and study carrels in the seemingly dwindling corners that harbor them.  But we have a few wayward souls who wander our libraries and hallways, overwhelmed by information and possibly not even aware of the fact.  Achieving a productive psychic state may be a skill which needs to be taught, particularly in a landscape in which it is so difficult.

I disagree with Ms Cain’s suggestion that group-work violates the principle of ‘solitude is best’ — indeed class time is social time, and constitutes those hours, referred to in her quote, when students should “exchange and advance ideas.”  It’s all the other hours that they should be spending like urban anchorites, chewing on pen tips while their mind tries to penetrate a problem.  But suppose there were an abundance of students with the urge to engage in this solitary thinking– where would they do it?

At John Jay our new building houses an area for student clubs, where students can use offices for quiet work.  Our library offers some solitude and quiet, but little privacy, with its large glass windows and open layout.  Our labs, often full, have workstations which do little to shield students from the eyes of their classmates.  In short, those who desire privacy can probably find it, but there is more we could consciously do to provide for a distraction-free student environment.  We could equip our campuses with high privacy zones, in a way analogous to the old smoke-free partitions in buildings.

Open spaces, full of light, are wonderful.  But we should equally value and cultivate the crannies and tiny redoubts that can store a student’s body while the mind flies away.  We should also help students learn to treat themselves with the psychic balm of aloneness in an environment where solitude is not the default condition.

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3 Responses to City of Solitude

  1. jadimodal says:

    I Think this is a work done in my official “work space”

  2. casa delia says:

    I Think this is a masterpieces! thanks

  3. Jonas Reitz says:

    This especially resonates when I look at my office – a converted classroom housing 7 faculty desks, full of commotion. I like the community this provides, but I have never gotten any serious mathematical work done in my official “work space” (except perhaps late at night, when no one else is about). I find I do math mainly in coffee shops…

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