Gravitas and Caricatures in Education

Not since the daringly personal and narrative-based entry to serious study in The Anguish of Snails (blogged of here) have I been able to fathom an entryway into an other type of academic writing. But listening to a Practical Backpacking podcast, episode 51 with Kolby "Condor" Kirk, brought me to a slower world, where there is time and space to allow connections and meaning to emerge organically and courageously, returning me to the idea of how to approach academic writing organically and daringly. Kirk is a long-distance, not thru-, hiker, who is known for his journalling which came to light via a Muir project video. I was intrigued that a man journals and was particularly drawn in by the narrative of someone who consciously felt the trials of the race of life around him, but has literally stood still for long enough in the midst of that to find his own peace replete with butterflies landing on him. The culmination of listening to Kirk, and following up on a song he mentioned about not caring about winning anymore and further interviews with him, was catching a glimmer of a space where work gets realised, but in so much of a kinder way, so much more of a humane way. In other words, the question that comes to mind for academe from the context of the interview (and Snails) is: can knowledge be spoken of by someone who sees their own human fallibility? The mouth speaking, after all, is on one such fallible human body. The narrative, therefore, if it is "fitting" (kairos! - here, to the measure of man), begins with uncomfortable caricatures of us, like the cartoonish figures in Plato's dialogues, though we may be striving to learn something more than ourselves. In other words, too, how wont we are to run away with ourselves. How hard it is to remain centered within, say, our adolescent mistakes, our gaffes (even if not in the workplace), wherever we fall short in the race or competition, and yet still be able to deliver something seriously, with gravitas.

Is it maybe the overall historical awareness of human fallibility (in a general sense, I think few individuals can handle it on a more personal level) - the sense of "historic perspectivism" or "reflective historiography" Auerbach says we have "inherited" - that has led to the urge to change pedagogy to be less grave; to also be less certain - so, therefore, devoid of anything to be learned by rote: that 'deserving' of learning being dynamic and always shifting (capricious). And in the mean time, teachers are encouraged to put the focus of class on the student, who is to be given "autonomy" in learning.
I actually subscribe in many instances to such pedagogy - but still think that some subjects need rote, like when learning verb declensions. Or dates! Etc. I think that too much focus on the student can then disable the student, as when, for example, the student learns to pursue only what is within range or likeable to them - where the student does not learn discipline, and the ability to absorb something far beyond their interests: that 'suspension of disbelief' that allows a totally different foundation to be laid, alongside other existing foundations, to create true breadth.

Discipline in the modern world is now mostly learned through illness: when we have to, say for example, laoriously peel and grate beets daily for health reasons. Suddenly, the daily discipline is possible, whereas before, it was not, it was only possible to grab something from the bakery.
So, all this to say that there is a place for the graveness of gravitas, obviously, in life (which the academy should ultimately be a lover and servant of), but also a place for our goofy, affinity-driven caricatures - so that balance between the two is an art.
Going back to modern pedagogy, many celebrate it (again, I subscribe to some of its practices), but perhaps we might want to sober up for a moment and remember Auerbach's warning that just at this time when we are so historically aware, we are also threatened by an "ahistorical system of education". For example, I have a few very smart students who cannot see the past without evaluating it in terms of more present concerns. They write very analytical papers, but papers that cannot extend 'suspension of disbelief' to enter into a time of different values. I see this as intellectual impoverishment, and I see it increasing. Learner autonomy cannot really fix that; it needs correctional intervention, of the kind: what you have written is indeed analytical, but can you extend your analysis further to consider looking at the subject from the vantage point of...? 

I have to admit that I was very excited to read about a course in Berkeley that employed a system of peer evaluation, but thought to myself that I would not be able to employ such a system every year: some years, there are not enough students of the kind who "raise the level of conversation" (to borrow a phrase from the poet O'Donohue). I think peer evaluation could quickly diminish into a pool of mediocrity. That said... there are years when that happens anyway: no matter how much one makes adaptations and modifications to content and delivery to try to engage students, they mostly come away with the bare minimum. And such years, one wastes too much time and energy.
So, it is exciting to read about different pedagogies because many of them might be kinder solutions to the real problems that face us in the classroom today. Kinder to teachers and to students. If one is facing a class of average students, so average that not even one or two more motivated peers spark competition and engagement, then the teaching problem is not top-down (delivernig maximum content and engaging students to meet it) but bottom-up (trying to begin with the students to get them to take a single step from where they are). In the latter case, I find myself trying to figure out, OK, so if there is one thing I want students to take from this course, what is it? I think in my class that has a historical component, that single thing is simply: can the student imagine at least one feature of this time that is not like our own, and understand it as such a distinction? (Of course the 'minimum list' is longer; but the distillation is real.)
More advanced classes are less rigorous in the sense that there is more that can be explored; there is a choice of several combinations that would be adequate. And that is where there is joy: some degree of mastery, some degree of flexibility. Everything before that is the stepping stone to that.
Stepping stones...

I'll try to bring this post to a close by bringing it back to the Kirk interview. He speaks of the importance of being not going somewhere, yet endurance as the means to reach those points of being, as it begins from that point where the journey seems too hard, where people extrapolate how much more the remaining journey will hurt based on pain experienced thus far and want to give up, when instead they should realise that they are getting stronger and better. It is clear why so many pedagogies focus on growth. But tied in with growth are all kinds of other things needing consideration, including even belief. Or even love of the world, and the question of how to love it... Auerbach once quoted Hugo of St. Victor in giving his answer: "...he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land". One loves the world if one is endowed with the love of the traveller, but with the gravitas of being the student of the lands. There is a place for this human love in academic writing - Auerbach has demonstrated this. Some pedagogy also emphasizes this by showing the teacher as not being the sole gatekeeper to knowledge. And a final note to this: isn't it a good thing that this pedagogy has come to popularity at exactly the time when students can see, on the internet, that teachers are not gatekeepers to knowledge? But, and the internet does not teach this, how to instill in average students, bent on easiest routes and minimal engagement, discipline and textual apparatus?

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