In my other life, the one not worth writing about, I have been taking a course called “Ecosystems” from the Open University on my iPad. One of the early lessons in that course required me to read David Attenburough’s “The Life Of Mammals” and watch one segment from the television series of the same name.

I’m sure I could’ve gotten the book at the library but I found it easier to just order it from Amazon. While there I also checked out the accompanying DVD and found that since I’m a member of Amazon Prime that it was free, all 10 segments.

To make a long story short, I got distracted from the ecosystems course and, instead, ended up reading the entire book and watching the 10 video segments. Reading the book and watching the video took longer than I anticipated, especially since it was interrupted by our trip to California and by sunny days where the birds seemed to be calling me out to play. Needless to say, I’m also hopelessly behind in the Ecosystem Course, though I hope to get back on track when I get back from an upcoming trip to Vancouver to see friends and my dentist.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by how easily I was distracted from the course. Apparently it’s a genetic trait, or, at the very least, a deeply embedded trait. I had much the same problem when I entered college many, many years ago.

I wasn’t fond of required “survey” courses in my English major. Every time I ran into a poet I really liked I would run to the University Bookstore and buy one of his books. Turned out that wasn’t an effective study habit. Although my expertise in certain poets far exceeded my classmates, I didn’t have a clue about a considerable number of poets that they knew, and, more importantly, that the teacher expected us to know. My grades suffered as a result, and I ended up with more poetry books that I could read at the time. Those who have followed me from the beginning will remember my mentioning that a lot of the poets I discussed early on were from books in my library from those college days. Heck, I still have college books I haven’t read yet.

Luckily for me, grades weren’t nearly as important then as they apparently are now, and that first quarter’s “C” average didn’t deter me from doing exactly the same thing the next quarter and much of my undergraduate years.

It was not until graduate school that I overcame this habit, probably because I got to choose which poets and authors I wanted to study in depth, and the classes were demanding enough that I had to stay on track to survive. Strangely, I maintained a 4.0 in grad school until after I’d earn my Masters degree and branched out to things I really wanted to learn more about, like filmmaking, things far out of my area of expertise.

As a life-long learner, I hold to the theory that we learn best not in a straight line but in a spiral, a concept I got from Yeats. In the short-term, we can certainly learn in a step-by-step manner. That’s exactly the way I began learning Photoshop, for instance. But any mastery that I have a Photoshop has come from working with my own photos and then returning to multiple textbooks as I meet new challenges or as I become more demanding. I understand more deeply every time I come back to a topic I’ve explored previously.

Online courses like The Open University are perfect for me. I will eventually cover the whole course and will learn what I’m ready to learn from it, and since I’m not taking it for credit I can focus on what I want to learn from the course, not on what a professor might expect.