Stupidity, mindfulness, and cheat sheets

I kind of made an ass of myself on Twitter last week. Merlin Mann and/or Dan Benjamin (I forget which) tweeted that the latest episode of Back to Work was available, and I went to look at the show notes. I saw a link to Red Barber’s Wikipedia article and tweeted this:

@hotdogsladies @danbenjamin A Red Barber link in the show notes? Are you doing 5by5 Morning Edition with Merlin as Red & Dan as Bob Edwards?

5:33 PM Tue Feb 1, 2011

This weekend I finally got around to listening to the episode1 and felt acutely embarrassed when I heard Merlin doing a Red Barber impersonation. He even mentioned Bob Edwards and Morning Edition. I’d tweeted a joke already told to the people who told it.

And really, I should have known that was the reason for the Red Barber link. There are only two reasons someone under the age of 70 would even know who Red Barber was:

  1. From reading James Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat,” a story in which Red appears and to which he gave the title.
  2. From listening to Morning Edition back in the 80s, when Red had a weekly segment.

Given that Merlin has told some pretty spot-on jokes about NPR—the kind only a listener would tell—the latter had to be the reason for the link. I just didn’t realize it until it was too late.

Apart from that,2 I really did enjoy the show. For reasons I can’t quite explain, the discussion of mindfulness and the rubber-band-around-the-wrist trick made me think of a studying technique I learned in graduate school.

I was taking a vibration analysis course from Art Robinson, and he had an unusual set of rules for our final exam: we were not allowed to use our books or our class notes, but we could bring in a few “cheat sheets” with whatever formulas and reminders we wanted. The ban on books and class notes was, he said, to keep the noise level down—allowing lots of paper meant allowing lots of paper shuffling, and he didn’t want to do that. Writing a concise set of notes would focus our minds on what was important. If we made a good set of cheat sheets, he told us, we wouldn’t even need to refer to them during the test because the act of putting the notes together would burn their content into our brains.

And then he said something diabolically cunning. “I’ve always thought I should just collect the cheat sheets and grade them instead of the final—they’ll show whether you understand the material or not. Haven’t been brave enough to try that. Yet.”

Of course, we all made the best cheat sheets we could, and there wasn’t much page rustling during the final. I still have my set. I can’t say I remember everything on it, but I do remember the topics it covers, and I still use it—30 years (!) later—when I need a refresher.

From that point on, I made cheat sheets before most of my finals, even those—no, especially those—that were closed book tests. Forcing myself to summarize the course in a few pages was the best way to put all the material into my head in a coherent framework. I can’t say that these other cheat sheets were as good as the one for the vibrations course—there was, after all, no threat that they would be graded—but they worked.

I’m hoping this post serves as a cheat sheet to keep me from jumping the gun on today’s Back to Work show notes.

  1. My podcast listening time is severely curtailed in the winter because I don’t spend an hour and a half each day going to and from work on my bike. I’m way behind. 

  2. Mrs. Lincoln,