Monday, December 05, 2016

Delayed action

My advising tutorial "Buddhism as a Liberal Art" ended today as sweetly as it began. Because of interruptions from holidays and the crater of the election it's a little hard to believe we met ten times: that many? On the other hand, it feels like we've been meeting much longer: only ten?

Perhaps sweet isn't the word. Gathered as a group for the last time, our minds turned to ultimate things. The theme for our final discussion, I'd told the class, was how one might get whatever we've been getting out of our time together in settings other than this. I primed things with a question from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's essay "Pedagogy of Buddhism":

Is it true that we can learn only when
we are aware we are being taught? 

(I found it in Donovan Schaefer's Religious Affects, a book I picked up at AAR; another work of Sedgwick's - the chapter "Pedagogy" from Critical Terms for Buddhist Studies - was actually my suggestion for this final class, before we put the syllabus aside!)

I thought we'd talk about how we learn to put ourselves in the way of new experiences, discoveries, knowledge - but also how hard it is to do. (I was thinking of Dewey's sense that education usually closes down people's curiosity.) But the sense in the room was that the idea Sedgwick was floating is not only not true, but backwards. We learn best when we are not aware of it, one student protested, let alone aware of being taught! From this it was a short distance to how one learns better outside of school, just living one's life. Suddenly the classroom came to seem the least promising place for learning to happen! Another student admitted that she'd figured out a few years ago that she could fake her way through the requirements of classes, and hadn't really been learning since. By "learning" she meant something more than performing well in class, including making good marks. You might say that, weary of playing the good student, she had come to our advising tutorial is search of liberating arts she wasn't finding at our liberal arts school.

(Make sure to look here)

I inquired what learning felt like, and we agreed that it was the falling into place of something you'd encountered before but hadn't got, what my lamented teacher Victor Preller called "the penny drops." We might have concluded that liberal arts plants seeds which sprout as your life unfolds but that seemed a little pat. The student's sense of faking it in classes raised a deeper worry, closer to Dewey's concerns but raised here about a pedagogy which claims to be Deweyan! (Her department, Interdisciplinary Science, is energetic in its commitment to "discovery science" and social justice-inflected pedagogy.) To what extent can the very intentionality of a well-constructed learning experience neuter its capacity to be truly transformative, permitting - even perhaps promoting - faking it? Is engaged, problem-solving pedagogy perhaps too earnest for the playful openness learning sometimes inhabits? Or is any "school" setting too contrived to connect deeply with a student's real life to occasion genuine growth?

Tough questions, but there was a palpable pleasure in being able to name them. And, folks reflected, that only happens in settings like this one! This wasn't quite what I was after, but of course it was gratifying. And I trust seeds were sown which will ripen in unexpected times and ways later. Although in many ways different than I expected (and very different from the last time), I dare say "Buddhism as a Liberal Art" was successful. I know I learned a lot...! I'll miss our gatherings.

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