[I’m reworking my learning philosophy, this series of posts will be my first draft.]
Like all philosophies, my learning philosophy is ultimately a personal one, and did not arrive fully-formed. As a result, my learning philosophy is ultimately an autobiographical account. Certain themes remain part of my teaching, largely because of my own experience.
The whole student, challenging the senses
My earliest memories are of school, and in this I doubt I am alone. Those memories, and the lessons learned, had little to do with the classroom. In each case, what made them interesting was the connections with all five senses, with the whole body. In preschool, this was an outing to a graveyard, with the smell of wet autumn leaves and the feel of rough, cold granite. In grade school it was putting on a play, after seeing Shakespeare on Broadway, in middle school, working on labs.
By the time I reached the university, many courses quickly began to fit the pattern we are all too familiar with: large lecture courses, readings, and exams. There is a nod toward experiential learning, perhaps, but it remains an exception. Again, the courses that stood out in my undergraduate experience were those that provided an environment that engaged the entire student. This drew me toward courses in acting and actors’ movement, at the extreme end, and I studied with two of the great theorists in movement: Jerzy Grotowski and Tadashi Suzuki. The acting studio provided an experiential dialog, a collaborative effort that engaged all five senses.
A short period teaching as part of the Space Academy, which trained payload specialists and high school teachers, among others, further enforced the idea that what the mind learns it learns within the body. While other stimuli can act as distractors, they can also raise awareness and alertness. Despite being (I hope), an interesting lecturer, the lecture hall often seems designed to induce drowsiness, and while the structure of the universite ensures that they will remain a mainstay, we can leverage this time by making spaces for inquiry outside the classroom.
This can be difficult in the more traditional coursework of the social sciences, particularly when it comes to large lecture classes. In large classes, however, it is possible to encourage “homework” that does not exist at home. I was inspired by an undergraduate professor in cultural anthropology who provided an opportunity to spend the night with families living in Tijuana; a mediation course brought us out of the classroom to observe mediations in their “natural setting.” But the engagement of all the senses need not be purposive in every case. The professor (James Danziger) who had his senior seminar meet at his home provided a new space for thought as well as for observation.
I have attempted to provide such experiences to my own students. In large classes, this means giving the opportunity to do some of their work for the class outside of the classroom. Using weblogs has given me the chance to connect them with a wider world, but I am most interested in the physicality of actually going and doing, This often means exploiting the resources of the campus, to engage in technologies directly, or moving off campus to find new spaces for thought and learning. By attending a film as a group, or holding small classes as a café, I hope to disengage students’ established notions of what teaching is and where it happens. There is always the danger that such new environments will provide new distractions, but in my experience just the opposite occurs. While the “theory walks” around the campus lake this fall may provide stimuli that have nothing whatever to do with communication theory, I feel they provide a path for awakening creativity and engaging students in the experience.