Broken Doll's Head

Daring Conversations: Searching for a Shared Language

 Published on October 7, 2014 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Adam Heidebrink-Bruno and Alex Fink /  “broken head” by Camil Tulcan; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 /  7

 “Ra-Ra Ah-Ah-Ah, Ga-Ga-Ooh-La-La, I want your bad romance.” — Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”

Do I really see myself teaching Lady Gaga next semester? Or should I stick to teaching Mozart? Should the speakers ooze legato violin melodies or wildly shake with pounding screams and saturated bass? The option paralyzes me. After all, my training is overwhelmingly in classical music. That’s the repertoire, the language that I can precisely understand and communicate. What do I know about Lady Gaga? Yet students who are not music majors love her, and want to learn more about her. Even more so, a faculty member in the social sciences (read: classes with large enrollments, hear, hear) insists that we design and teach a learning community entirely focused on popular music from the last decade or so.

It’s a hefty choice; yet, we are all forced to make these choices when we develop a class. So, do I teach “The Magic Flute” to the fervently devoted few or do I team up with this colleague — whom I don’t know very well — to teach songs like “Paparazzi”, “Bad Romance”, “The Perfect Storm”, and “Blurred Lines”, to the non-musically trained many? Do I take the safe path, teaching a universal topic that I can do reasonably well, or do I teach a subject which may or may not be relevant five years from now? Am I ready to build a course practically from scratch while negotiating a new, messy, yet-to-be defined protocol with my colleague from another discipline? Am I willing to risk it all and teach a group of students who neither love classical music nor revere me?

What I propose is just a hypothetical scenario. During my teaching career, however, I have often taken different versions of the riskier path: Whether by designing and teaching a new course from the bottom up, by teaching an old course in an entirely new way, by venturing outside my area of expertise, by adjusting the course or its delivery to fit the theme of a learning community and teach it with somebody else, or all of the above.

At first sight, every time I ventured outside my strictly-defined area of expertise (say, teaching Lady Gaga instead of Mozart) I was “wasting time”: I was not publishing in my field, I was not perfecting my area of specialization, I was not networking in the right circles. Worse, being a generalist, I could not deliver crispy, up-to-date scholarship (not with the same depth that a specialist could do it).

And yet, teaching outside my comfort zone I was a different teacher each time, and the students noticed. Because I felt insecure, I paid more attention and was more open and engaged during the journey, just like a driver trying to find his way in a new neighborhood. Looking with fresh eyes, my students and I were able to get the big picture, perhaps precisely because we did not spend so much time on the finer details which are the domain of the specialist.

What is teaching about nowadays? Information is the cheapest commodity around, and human attention is the scarcest. While writing this essay, I type “Lady Gaga” in Google, and get 40,500,000 results. If this were the starting point of a research project, as a trained scholar I would know what to do next, depending on what I was looking for: Using Boolean operators, expressions among quotes, and so on, I would eventually get to the 0.000001% of information (probably less than that) that is useful in a scholarly sense. But our students, particularly at the undergraduate level, usually have much more trouble connecting the dots and building actual meaning. Learning to effectively navigate this ocean of information is far more important for them at this point than learning the fine print. There is always time, later on, to focus and excel on a single discipline (or a small subset of a discipline) at the expense of others.

Teaching “Lady Gaga, instead of Mozart” (metaphorically speaking) has forced me to understand the constantly-evolving world of the students and to find effective ways to engage with it and with them. It has been a roller-coaster ride, accessing their new languages, tapping into their native, hard-wired relationships with technology, and adjusting to their preferred ways of communicating with one another, all the while making it all compatible with my own ways of knowing. With so many challenges before me, more than once I have felt intimidated at the crucial moment to decide what to do, in the here and now of the classroom, feeling the impulse — and sometimes yielding to it — to restrict myself to my domain of knowledge: to go back and teach what I know, the way I’ve known how to teach it for some years, perhaps and most probably a mild variation of the way I’ve learned it a relatively long time ago.

Taking the unsafe path has forced me to expand my traditional notions and helped me to recognize the new shapes of the eternal, universal archetypes. Acknowledging the very real challenge posed by the dispersion of information, I now make an opposite, integrative effort as a key component of my courses: Could some of Lady Gaga’s characters and attitudes be a variation of la femme fatale, reincarnations of other female villains such as the Queen of the Night, Maleficent, or the Catwoman? Once and again, I have found that facilitating curricular connections such as these, exploring universal themes from an interdisciplinary perspective, increases students’ engagement, boosts their self-esteem, and stimulates their imagination.

The universality of themes was introduced to me by Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Reading him during my teenage years was like entering a conversation with an eccentric, entertaining, and deeply erudite man. One of his obsessions, the labyrinth, epitomized his way of seeing the universe, and most especially the universe of literature. His essays and fiction stories often advance the idea that there are no individual writers, no truly individual works. Instead, literature — and all of human culture, by extension — is conceived as a continuum, with individual writers only adding different flavors to a shared knowledge, eternal ideas ricocheting in diverse echoes through centuries and civilizations. In Seven Nights (a series of lectures given in Buenos Aires in 1977 and later turned into reflective essays), Borges referred in passing to Sinbad and Ulysses as if they were the same character:

“In The Thousand and One Nights there are echoes of the West. We encounter the adventures of Ulysses, except that Ulysses is called Sinbad the Sailor. The adventures are at times identical: for example, the story of Polyphemus.”

The universality of themes is a concept especially pertinent to faculty members nowadays, for do we think of ourselves as exclusive holders of the space defined by our individual disciplines? Or, like Borges, could we see ourselves as humble segments of a much larger interconnected continuum, all potentially learning, indistinctly and simultaneously, from students or colleagues? The challenge is significant. University teachers nowadays face significant pressures to focus on their individual disciplines, or even in much smaller subsets of their disciplines — scholarly spaces which may be easier to precisely master and manage, both in terms of content and in terms of a shared vocabulary — rather than getting entangled and potentially lost in the wild confusion and cacophonic interference of “off-road,” interdisciplinary paths.

Research and its potentially competitive nature also pose a challenge, in that it fosters an individualistic and protective attitude during the gestation of ideas. In contrast, for Borges, originality is a vain illusion: being original is simply impossible. Rather, instead of becoming obsessed about developing a unique voice, the writer should pay homage to his precursors, lose himself by imitating the writers he admires, seek and enjoy the connections between seemingly old and new ideas, reveal or interpret their transformation. In short, the writer should first be a passionate, insightful reader. Along the same lines, American composer George Perle, coined the expression “the listening composer,” alluding precisely to the mandatory connection between the timeless continuum and the individual creative spirit, each nurturing the other.

Isn’t the individual teacher but one more piece of this continuum? Notwithstanding the disciplinary expectations that a faculty member must address in terms of his or her output as a scholar (sooner or later, original research must be conducted or creative projects be carried out for matters of tenure and promotion), teaching during the first years of an undergraduate degree means helping students see the connections, the eternal archetypes behind the metamorphoses of characters and geographies. This integrative impetus would certainly be explicit in courses exploring comparative literature, ritual, folklore, visual arts, or music, for instance, but it would be equally applicable to interdisciplinary critical enquiry across the humanities and social sciences. Branching out from the world of literature, comprehensive cross-cultural readings of human nature were advanced by illustrious minds such as James George Frazer (The Golden Bough, 1890), Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949), and Claude-Lévi Strauss (Tristes Tropiques, 1961), among others.

Yes, it all sounds so noble and peachy… but we are still weary. As scholars and teachers, resistance to integration is a perfectly logical reaction on our part: If we studied and perfected our knowledge of discipline X for decades and are now established practitioners of this field of knowledge, we feel reluctant to tinker with discipline Y, which we don’t know very well. Worse, that’s not even the main problem: If we, as trained scholars, find it difficult to deal with the foreign discourse of other disciplines, we can only imagine how difficult must be for our students to put it all together, given that they take a course on X at 10AM, another course on Y at 11:20, and finally another course on Z at 12:30. This is why, if we really believe in the ambitious tenets of a liberal — or “general” — education, as expressed by educators and activists such as John Dewey, Howard Gardiner, or Martha Nussbaum, no matter how intense the temptation to restrict ourselves to the specialized space of our respective domains, we must keep a metaphorical antenna constantly deployed to catch the associations that students may establish with the content of their other courses, and even encourage them to do so. As we teach X, the students may suspect — and even dare to suggest, if the atmosphere of the class so allows it — a legitimate and illuminating connection to Y.

At the core of this attitude there is a respect that we must have for all the academic units on campus, seeing our individual or departmental specialized pursuits as just one more contributor to the inexhaustible quest for truth, and ultimately acknowledging, in very concrete and practical terms, that no individual discipline — believe it or not, not even our own! — is sufficient to understand the world. At the end of the day — whether we help them or not — our students will need to unify and ascribe some kind of synergistic meaning to all the courses taken during their degree. In recognition of this formidable effort, we might as well help them any way we can.

Besides the blossoming and potentially chaotic dialogue amongst disciplines, our passionately specialized discourse must also consider the actual everyday world of our students. No matter how young students may be, they bring their own life histories, personalities, interests, and wishes to the classroom. They bring their own, unique perspective of the world, shaped in ways that — as we faculty members grow older — may become potentially elusive to us. Fifteen or so years ago, the elephant in the room was the internet. Then it was technology in the classroom (remember them blogs and clickers?). Today, the buzz words are “social media” and “apps.” Tomorrow, who knows?

No matter how fast these environmental parameters change, how quickly these fads may come and go, they cannot be dismissed, because they are part of the everyday life of our students. The students’ perspective (including their constantly evolving habits to communicate with each other and with the world at large) is without a doubt one more of these contextual ingredients that keep instructors on our toes, one factor which we must take into account in order to facilitate the necessary link between the course content and its relevance to our students’ lives.

A good book wants to be read carefully, to be listened to, to trigger and be engaged in a transformative dialogue. That is also our students’ and colleagues’ secret wish.

“Ra-Ra Ah-Ah-Ah, Ga-Ga-Ooh-La-La, I want your bad romance.” Lady Gaga, get ready: We’ll see you soon.

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7 Responses
  1. Laura Witherington

    Love this! I appreciate your examination of Borges and Dewey in the context of Mozart v. Gaga. Does it have to be either one or the other? Could the course be Rock Star Divas, which Mozart kind of fits, if one uses the colloquial definition of rock star as cool, outstanding, or celebrity? I think of Byron as that sort of rock star and that sort of diva. Wish I could take either of your courses!

  2. Stephen Ross

    “Do I take the safe path, teaching a universal topic that I can do reasonably well, or do I teach a subject which may or may not be relevant five years from now?”

    If that were the question then the answer would be obvious: teach the universal topic that you can do reasonably well. Why bother teaching in an area whose relevance fluctuates wildly when you have valuable material at hand that has stood the test of time?

    But you seem to qualify that later. Pop material, Lady Gaga for example, might come and go over the years, but as a sort of raw material it still has high pedagogical value. As you suggested, you can use this material to engage with the student and teach them to draw connections between different topics, themes, courses, and fields.

    I enjoyed the article a lot. The emphasis on having a solid foundation of generalist skills before specialising had me nodding my head.

    I’m curious, though. What you’ve said can be implemented very well in small, upper-year courses, but it seems more difficult for larger introductory courses. For example, how would you apply this to teaching an introductory theory course to 30, 60, or even 100+ students? In that case, there is a lot of material to go through and a lot of repetition required to make it sink, both of which cost a lot of time. How can an instructor tie that material to universal themes in a way that doesn’t cost more time, or that even saves time? Or is that sort of course better left encapsulated for the student’s sake (i.e., it might be more difficult otherwise)?

    1. Thank you, Stephen. I think that the true challenge is to try this principle in any kind of course. In a way, it’s easy to be “free” with a small group of highly committed, advanced students. These students are already on a relatively safe path towards lifelong learning. The students at risk are the ones in the introductory classes, fresh out of high school: those are the students that desperately need anchors (Lady Gaga) to relate seemingly disparate chunks of knowledge. Perhaps the only difference between the small course with the advanced students and the large course with introductory students would be the dosage between, say, “nuts and bolts” stuff and “far-reaching” or “associative” stuff. What I’ve found is that sometimes all it takes is a nod, a token, an off-the-cuff comment, and then the pin drops and a connection can be made. For example: If teaching the Queen of the Night aria, one could simply start the Powerpoint presentation with a photograph of Disney’s Maleficent, and then take it from there.

  3. A lovely mix of topics here. Yes, we need to find a shared language, but how? You focus on one idea, but, in passing, imply another. You highlight the idea of universal archetypes found across cultures and historical periods, but you also mention the students (and not just the students, surely) struggling to unify an understanding of society as a whole – the particular society to which they belong. At the end of your piece you suggest listening to the students. If we do that, what do we hear? Camille Paglia wrote a nice piece a while back about hearing her students admitting how lost they are – drifting like the character in the Kubrick film, with his tubes cut, spiraling off into the ice-cold depths of space. My query concerns how best to address that need to get a grasp of the whole. Will the uncovering of supposedly timeless cultural universals do it, or do we need a more historically informed framework enabling us to appreciate not only how we resemble Ulysses but also how our culture is so far beyond anything that Homer could have dreamed of? You describe the crippling specialism of the academy and of the modern world in general. The antidote to that surely has to be an interrogation of the whole in its historical particularity and an insistence that all students (not just those in the humanities) take a good look at it (mandatory lessons in the history of ideas for science students, for instance). Perhaps once we have a shared concern for that histocial totality, we inch a little closer to finding a shared language.

    1. Thank you very much, Torn. I agree with you that the shared language with which we could eventually all communicate somewhat presupposes or requires a shared understanding of our culture, a shared access to our collective memory as a civilization. I think that, for Borges, this collective memory could be approached through the lens of literature and from there branch out into math, philosophy… But I see no difficulty in using the lens of history, the social sciences, art, music, or any other pathway to enter the conversation, as long as the next step is taken and one gets curious about how other disciplines approach the same phenomena, the same universal concerns…all knowledge is ultimately interrelated. As much as Homer perhaps could not have imagined the shape of our culture today, it could also be claimed that, for better or worse, nothing truly fundamental has changed about human nature since then.

      1. “nothing truly fundamental has changed” ?

        There is something behind that statement that is worth defending, but from a pedagogical point of view surely we have to acknowledge that the opposite is also true.

        For example, the real point of turning the attention of western students to the culture of ancient Greece has to be that there they might get an enlightening perspective on their own culture. So, in a sense, the students need to see in the Greeks a common humanity (they aren’t aliens from Alpha Centura). But if, like those terrible American movies of the Greek classics, they only see Americans romping across a rocky Mediterranean landscape, then they have completely missed the point. What the Greeks have to teach us is all contained in the difference between their culture and ours – between a unified culture centred so well on the human subject and a fragmented culture sedimented in a gargantuan objective apparatus that can never be assimilated to the individual human mind.

        One small example: The Greeks have a word for truth. So do we. But if we rush to the conclusion that we see here a universal concern for the truth, the lesson has been lost. The Greek word for truth is αληθεια (alithea), which links truth to the idea of recalling something that was forgotten. Our idea of truth has no such connotation. Have we forgotten something? Might a study of the Greeks remind us of what has been forgotten? These are the interesting questions. But they fade from view if we look only for the similarities and not for the differences.

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