Back Again To The Beginning

Usually, just before school starts up again, I set aside some time to re-read Elizabeth Hand’s novel Waking the Moon. Revisiting this book is my little new/old beginning, my little bit of recurrence to get the school year started again. It’s a ritual I value and enjoy.

For the first time in a long while, though, I didn’t read it this year. I’m not sure why — perhaps other work got in the way, or perhaps I just didn’t think of it. I feel a bit as if I just dropped suddenly into my first full week of classes from the void. There are other little things, though, that call me back to the cycles that I find so familiar when school starts in the fall.
This year, after a hectic summer of work that included taking an online class for the first time (after several rounds of teaching one and actively implementing my own new online course design for the first time), I find myself thinking a lot about about learning. Most of my thinking on the subject is really about things I’ve thought before — there’s no new or special insight here, only a refreshing visit to the known, cast in a slightly different light.
During my small amounts of free time this summer, I found myself obsessed with playing some room-escape/adventure games for the iPad: The Room (plus its sequel and epilogue) and Forever Lost (and its sequel and prologue). Both titles feature marvelously immersive, carefully constrained environments (unlike something as (often annoyingly) grand in scale as, say Myst and its sequels, which I used to play a long time ago). In each game, the story functions as both an incentive to solve puzzles and as a framing device that allows the player to avoid worrying too much about exactly how absurd the situation is. Both also feature complex but reasonable puzzles — they aren’t impossibly hard, and the solutions generally tend to follow quite logically from their setup. Both games also have at least one “convenience feature” that facilitates gameplay — The Room uses its first puzzle and in-game hint function to teach players the game in a way that smoothly brings the player into what I think of as the “culture” of the puzzles, while Forever Lost offers a snapshot feature that allows the player to “photograph” scenes, write notes, and display and use those shots/notes to work on the puzzles (much more convenient, I think, than taking notes the old-fashioned way). While both titles provide in-game hints (Forever Lost does require the player to leave gameplay to read them), those hints aren’t so blindingly obvious that they ruin the challenge of play (although I think The Room does this a little more effectively than Forever Lost). Both are beautifully rendered in very different styles, and make good use of the iPad’s screen space.
     What I like best about these games, though, is how well they teach. To play them is also to learn how to play them, and while that experience can sometimes be frustrating, frustration is typically rewarded (which to me indicates that these games are designed very well and very thoughtfully). I sometimes think of a class in the form of a game like this, one in which students are asked to solve puzzles to serve a small part of a greater story that they will only understand fully (if they grasp it at all) once they’ve reached the end. I wish I could actually build such a thing — a class as a room-escape game would be amazing! I suspect, however, that there are some — ehem — serious obstacles to the implementation of such a game. Hmmm. Maybe Interim someday…
A Related Example:
My Fall semester this year is an interesting mix of classes. In addition to my two Introduction to Philosophy sections, I have a mid-level Philosophy of Music class (which is going to be great fun, I think), the 300-level Racism and Sexism in American Life class (a cross-listed course with Sociology that serves gen ed and our majors in Philosophy and Religion, Criminology/Criminal Justice, and Social Work), and an online Professional Ethics class (the new version that I designed). It’s a lot of work, but the work is all stimulating, and my students are really quite terrific so far (go, students!).
     Every fall term, I assign Simone Weil’s “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies With a View to the Love of God” as the first reading in my Introduction to Philosophy class. My purpose for doing so is twofold: to use it as an example to practice good reading skills and the identification of arguments, and to put before students a model of just how grand learning can be, even when it is frustrating and confusing and difficult. It is practice and lesson all at once.
     Today, after I had the chance to watch my Intro students grapple (quite wonderfully, I must say) with Weil, I also began to talk about the processes and effects of structural inequality and oppression with my Racism and Sexism group (who also did a wonderful job). I hadn’t really thought to bring both of these experiences together, however, until I happened to sit down after my last class for the day to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ most recent blog post for The Atlantic, “Acting French.” What brings Weil and Coates together for me, right now, is the way in which Coates’ experience of negotiating identity and education (read the whole thing yourself — I can’t really do it justice here) in his struggles with learning French at Middlebury’s summer immersion program points out just how complicated a notion attention is. It is tempting, sometimes, to let a sort of shallow meditative reading of Weil’s concept rule the day — and I think Coates’ account, layered in his experience and his understanding of the ways in which that experience affects how he learns and how his learning exists in a particular context, is an excellent counter to that shallow reading, one that inches just a bit closer to connecting attention productively to affliction.
     In less fancy terms, one thing I like about Coates’ description of his own learning is that it serves as a terrific reminder for a teacher that not all students are coming to us with the same tools, that effort with even the wrong tools may be fruitful (but possibly dangerous), and that teaching well relative to differences in learning isn’t just about styles of learning or about teaching “good study skills” — it’s about realizing where those “good study skills” come from, structurally speaking, and what it means to not be able to take them for granted. As Coates puts it so provocatively and so plaintively at the end of the piece:

I came to Middlebury in the spirit of the autodidactic, of auto-liberation, of writing, of Douglass and Malcolm X. I came in ignorance, and found I was more ignorant than I knew. Even there, I was much more comfortable in the library, thumbing through random histories in French, than I was in the classroom. It was not enough. It will not be enough. Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.

The frustration in those words* is important, I think, for a lot of different reasons that bear exploring. I could also easily see myself assigning Coates’ blog post and Weil’s reflections together from now on — the great lesson about what is grand, what is sacred, what is powerful in the very act of struggling to learn is in both, and in Coates’ piece that struggle takes on a vitally important (and plainly political) additional dimension.

I find that love most of all how much both of these writers love learning itself. That was what made taking a class this summer so satisfying (and occasionally terrifying) an experience for me — it let me return to the joy of being purely a student of a thing I didn’t know, after years of learning mostly in the context of refining and improving existing knowledge (which is often what teaching requires).

*I do not want to presume to speak for Mr. Coates — I sense “frustration” here, but in context I can see the makings of a case for some other feeling, and he may well have meant to express nothing of the kind.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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