Lucky listening object?

This summer I had the pleasure of reading Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by a longtime copy editor at the New Yorker, Mary Norris. This book is a pleasure, something you can tell just by the epigram:

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Later on, Norris expounds at length upon the editor’s pencil—not in a Platonic sense, but in the sense of the actual pencils and pencil sharpeners she uses for her tasks. Her favorite is the Blackwing, a premium and pedigreed pencil that promises “half the pressure, twice the speed.” (The smooth writing experience will appeal to certain pen fanatics as well.)

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On Norris’s recommendation, I ordered a box of Blackwings, specifically the Palomino Blackwing 602 model. They really are pretty awesome, from the silky flow onto the paper to what Norris describes as the chiclet-shaped eraser. Her loving and detailed description of trial and error before finding the Blackwings also imbued them with a special sense of purpose. As a legal writing professor, I began to think about whether law students would benefit from having some sort of totemic editor’s tool. This does seem appropriate, since lawyers should be editors as much as writers.

And as with many of may daily activities (see Orangetheory post from last week), I wondered whether this idea of a special writer’s tool could apply to the complementary skill of listening. What could lawyers and legal professionals use as an expert tool of the trade, giving their listening a special sense of purpose? The ideal tool would be subjectively powerful for the individual using it and carry some historical or contextual significance as well to help the individual perform the task in the aspirational spirit of the profession. (The Blackwing website promotes a myth like this through the pencil’s history: discontinued in the 1990s and then brought back in the 2010 after some were paying up to $40 per pencil for remaining stock.)

But listening is a receptive communication channel, in contrast to writing and speaking. What does the idea of a special tool even mean for receiving information rather than making it?

The first thing that came to mind is the art of taking notes. It’s not listening exactly, but it’s an artifact of listening. When I asked academic-support expert Moji Olaniyan how she works with students on their listening, she said the first thing she looks at is their notes, and they way they take notes. (More specifically, Moji Olaniyan is Dean Olaniyan, the Academic Dean for Academic Enhancement at the University of Wisconsin.)

One revered method for taking notes is the Cornell method, described by Lisa Needham in an updated Lawyerist post just this week. The note-taking method itself does not demand any particular purchase since any paper can be used with a few lines drawn to create a left margin and summary at the bottom. However, the Levenger notebooks are one way to spend on this method if desired. For practicing lawyers, of course note-taking does not go away after law school, although it changes form. Lisa’s post offered some interesting glimpses into what note-taking looks like in law practice.

Note-taking can also go multimedia such as with a Livescribe pen that records while you write. This pen may not make listening feel sacred and special the same way the Blackwing works for Mary Norris. Rather I suspect it would make one feel a tiny bit like an engineer (or spy?), which could be good in a different way—assuming it’s legal and culturally acceptable to record audio wherever you may use it.

But note-taking is just a proxy for listening, and only in situations where note-taking is socially acceptable.

What about the listening act itself—the experience of taking in the information, and the speaker’s perception of being listened to? In social situations, people may grasp a glass of wine or a Coke, a reminder in the hand of social cues to follow. Grasping a warm cup (including but not limited to a cup of coffee) may help with social interactions, scientific research has suggested.

On the other hand, have you ever been in a conversation where it seems to be going pretty well and then you see the other person’s eyes dart sideways, as if looking down at a phone—even if they’re not actually doing so? They may be drawn to another “talismanic,” “fetishistic” and “fanatical” object: the “amulet” of the smartphone.

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