Saturday, April 19, 2014
Training the Elephant
If an elephant walks along a market street in India, she will reach now to the left for a melon, now to the right for a grab of pistachios~led by her trunk, glutting on the available feast. She will not walk very far. Why should she? But given some object to hold, such as a stick, she can be easily led to the fields beyond, the brook where she might bathe, the open sun in which to bask.
It is the nature of the human mind to be constantly scanning~for resources, mates, predators. Now this way, now that. Boredom is "nowhere to focus"~an experience of scanning that devolves into numbness; frustration; anxiety; depression, and its concomitant, anger. The antidote, and corollary tendency of the mind, is to seize on an object, like an owl on its prey. That's the how of golf, Elvis collections, laser surgeries, guacamole recipes, digital cameras. But the need to scan makes us vulnerable~to Nintendo, Tweeting, Facebooking, Cheetos, Black Friday sales, Budweiser, and on~all the things that offer our minds respite from scanning, at our own expense. The need to seize can freeze. If the elephant's trunk is constantly occupied, she can't feed herself.
Even as I write this post, I find ways to stop myself from scanning. I open a new file to write the post, a not-to-be-underestimated step. Woody Allen says, "80% of success is showing up." I anticipate what might arrest the attention of my readers. I choose an unexpected image for a teaching essay~an elephant. I find an image of an elephant with an unexpected basketball in her/his trunk. I surprise myself, and hopefully, you, onto the page. I keep a working outline scrolling ahead of me.
When a student asks me What do you want? the subtext is likely to be Saving me from myself! She is asking for something to help her gather her attention in a direction, so she might move forward. But I, as her teacher, want something that will help me, as her teacher, to focus. The A paper, if we must talk academic economics, is the one that surprises me with its originality, that stops me from scanning for something to get me through the stack of papers. That is, in short, not boring to us both.
How do we guide our students to train their minds, so that they will not be vulnerable to predatory politics, commerce, and, yes, predatory teaching? We can beat minds into submission, as mahouts traditionally do elephants. For that, bring on the hooks, the chains, the starvation, humiliation, the pain of rigid pedagogies. Beat the elephant so it will walk that street.
Or, we can resist what unenlightened administrators deem to be "focused": chaining students to hackneyed standards. A first step to this is to help each other appreciate how the mind works~that it will, that it must forage. But it also needs surprise and novelty to move forward.
Then, when a student asks me What do you want? I turn the question back to her: What do you want? What surprises you? What energizes you? Open questions, by their nature, focus us, lead us to surprise. Next, I ask How can we make this assignment about you? And then, the important step, help her to commit, to hold onto this focus for the ride.
How are you training your own and others' elephants? Where is your slam-dunk?