The work of learning

I was happy to receive recently the assessment report on a new General Education (G.E.) course that I helped design.  The course, “Sociology 10: On Being Filipino, A Sociological Exploration,” has become one of the most popular courses in the G.E. social science cluster in the University of the Philippines Diliman campus.  Students consistently rated it “excellent” and the demand for additional sections has grown every semester.

Those who have taken it say the course has taught them to be reflective and to think more critically. Asked how the course can be improved, the students suggested more “visual aids” and more opportunities for class participation.  These are fascinating comments because they reflect the changing conditions in which the work of learning is undertaken in our time.

Today’s students are painfully aware of the amount of information they need to process in order to get a good education.  Yet they also know that courses hardly leave them time to reflect on the relevance of such information to their own lives.  They think more “visual aids” might help them cope better with information overload. I think we’re dealing here with the distinct habits and expectations formed by a culture centered on television, billboards, computer graphics, and 3D animation.

More than half of my students in graduate seminar courses last year used PowerPoint in their reports.  Such presentations certainly make note-taking easier, but I am not at all convinced they make thinking more efficient.  There’s something about the projected light that’s hypnotizing; I think it induces fixation with the graphics rather than an interest in ideas.  It activates the watching more than the listening function.

Far more than the need for greater use of visual aids, I find the students’ clamor for more time to be heard in class encouraging.  To me it indicates a more active engagement in the learning process. Maybe it also represents a silent rebellion against sensory overload and against the notion that equates education with receiving rather than with also sending messages.

These thoughts have come to me while reading Gerald Graff’s book “Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.”  Graff thinks of university education as initiation into “the culture of ideas and arguments.”  The gatekeepers of academe, he says, have made this culture more opaque and the game of learning more difficult than it should be.  The game is actually simple.  Graff enumerates its three basic parts:  “Listen closely to others, summarize them (their ideas) in a recognizable way, and make your own relevant argument.”  He calls this “argument literacy” – “the ability to listen, summarize, and respond.”

Learning to listen is the starting point of intellectual discipline. It implies an awareness of the key issues in a discussion, as well as the ability to cut through the verbiage through purposive listening.  Good listeners are good summarizers.  They can classify ideas tossed out in an ongoing discussion almost instantaneously.  They work with basic ordering schemes when processing ideas.  This ability is not an instinctual endowment; it is acquired through practice and preparation.  Good listeners are not only able to follow the arguments, they are also able to anticipate them because they try to identify beforehand the kind of debate or discussion they are entering.

One immediately recognizes a systematic listener behind every clear and concise summary.  A rambling synthesis, on the other hand, is almost always the product of an undisciplined listener.  One cannot conceal with language proficiency what is basically a disorganized train of ideas.  The result would be glibness, not eloquence.

There are many who like to talk because of the advantage they have in the language being used.  But their interventions are often either redundant or irrelevant because they spend more time framing the clever statements they want to make than listening to the flow of ideas.  Instead of pushing the discussion forward, they retard it.

But there are others who, having followed the exchange of ideas carefully, are nonetheless unable to respond to the discussion. Sometimes the reason is their inability to connect the ideas to their own world or experiences, but often it is because they are not confident they have understood what was said, or that they can express themselves in the same academic language. There is no cure for this except to ask, and to explain one’s confusion without fear of ridicule.

One of the tricks in academe is to impress others by the exclusive use of conceptual language.  Learning does involve some acquaintance with academic jargon, but it is not synonymous with its use. Whether I write for newspapers or journals, I seldom employ the vocabulary of my discipline, and the few times that I do, I try to express the same ideas on the same page in everyday language.  It is no great deal to me that some of my colleagues think that what I am doing is not sociology but journalism.

In this kind of narrow academism lie precisely the impediments to university education.  Instead of approaching the work of learning as a great adventure, students are led to think they must speak a different vocabulary in order to qualify as educated persons.  “The point,” says Graff, “is not to turn students into clones of professors but to give them access to forms of intellectual capital that have a lot of power in the world.”  That capital is nothing unless they can participate in the public conversation.

Comments to <>