Sunday, 6 September 2015

A rediscovered country

I've mentioned Richard Kearney in this blog before and, especially, his conception of anatheism—loosely-translatable as "a seeking a rebirth of faith after the loss of faith". This notion is not unlike the Jewish teshuva ( (Hebrew: תשובה‎, or "return") which is often translated as "repentance" but I think the emphasis should be on the "returning" to life better informed—ie, as opposed to "rejecting life" out of frustration and cynicism.

It is a notion that I've been thinking about quite a bit lately. And, for reasons not immediately obvious. Like the rest of my colleagues, this being the time of year for planning and organizing our classes, I've been thinking about how to approach each project in the classroom and not lose sight of the bigger picture. Like with most things in life, it is easy to get caught up in each particular instance—both in the positive and negative sense. So, I've been thinking about how I learn and retain knowledge and skills.

Recently, I took up playing guitar again. The first few days were painful on my finger tips, but even after years of benign negligence I was surprised how quickly everything started coming together again. I even found that I could remember every note in a song I wrote with a friend many, many years ago—even the riffs (flourishes and embellishments) I wrote into the song. It took me a few runs to get it back but it did come back.

I think the element of "love of the subject" is rarely recognized as key to academic and vocational success. The course description, in many cases, becomes a "decalogue" (ten commandments) of sorts—so much so that the interests and needs of the students are ultimately swept aside, so compelling are the imperatives and directives.

But course descriptions are what they are (and they aren't very much at that in the first place). It is an outline (ie, not the real thing). It is a detailed contract between the college and the students to transfer credits that are earned or demerits exacted as per how marks are divvied up in relation to some set of standards. The administrative duties are important to be sure, but the classroom is a community.

As a community, each member of it has something to offer to the whole and its members. Their life experiences and levels of academic readiness run a wonderful and remarkable range and depth. The classroom is a resource; it emerges naturally but requires cultivation and direction to become useful to the students and the teacher.

I usually try and conduct my classes as bilingually as possible. I find that some students may not be able to articulate what they're thinking about in the English language but they're perfectly capable of expressing themselves in the Inuit language, and vice versa. Also, peppering a presentation or lecture with Inuktitut invariably works wonders because the students have an opportunity to see and hear their mother tongue being used in a technical and/or intellectual context they've not seriously considered before.

Broken English/Inuktitut is acceptable in this case; it is, in fact, what makes the whole system work. It makes the subject less daunting and allows the students to "own" the subject and revel in its discovery. This approach is welcoming and allows the students to play in a safe and non-threatening environment, to ask questions, to offer their thoughts and insights from a familiar and trust-worthy ground (their mother tongue).

I've always maintained that our individual knowledge and memories are laid out in a landscape, a rediscovered country. When I have experienced discovering something new and contexted it in that rediscovered country, I can then "talk" myself through a subject as if I was hiking and trekking familiar trails. I don't need to memorize anything, really; a few runs normally suffice because first principles, once learned, are difficult to forget.

Now, if I could only find a way to remember names and faces...