Friday, November 3, 2023

Learning builds from vulnerability and discomfort

"If you aren't scared shitless, you aren't learning," the prof said to us.

We all laughed. The prof doubled down, "Learning should shake you, disturb you, confront you and make you sit up and pay attention."

Today that prof would likely provoke a class walk out. Someone would file a complaint. Everyone in today's class would prefer to continue engaging comfortably and unchallenged in their bubbles of learning. But at the time we did sit up, we thought about it, and considered what it meant if the normal experience of learning was to be anxious, worried, or as the prof said "scared shitless." 

Learning takes work.  Learning involves taking risk. Learning forces us to come to terms with what we can't do as much as what we can do. Learning requires us to realize when we need to walk away, even if there are consequences. That's the thing though, we seem to be in a society that wants to live consequence free. That's not totally true, but in the education world it does seem to be a thing in which students and their advocates (teachers, parents, students themselves) accept there are consequences for many things in life except not doing well on an exam or an assignment (Menzies 2022)

Learning requires us to be willing to risk hearing things we don't like. It requires us to allow ourselves to be unsettled by critical commentary. It also means that as learners we will make mistakes, use turns of phrases that on second thought would have been better left unsaid. 

Teaching mainly settler students about Indigenous issues for close to three decades has made me a kind of expert on the range of ways settlers get disturbed in discussions. It's a tricky issue as I have no interest in deliberately upsetting people. That said, the reality of colonial settler society is that settlers have an unwarranted privilege and such a sense of entitlement that many of them get really cranky about being asked to check their privilege.  

Of course being unsettled by learning is not restricted to settler learners. Transformative learning should challenge all of us, should unsettle us, should lead us to become critically self aware.  That's hard work for any one.

Learning about cross cultural and intra-cultural differences should be uncomfortable. We come of age with many unquestioned values bequeathed to us. Learning is a kind of consciousness raising in which we have to step outside of ourselves a bit to examine our preconceptions. Anthropology does this by challenging received wisdom in areas of gender, sexuality, race, social class, colonialism, authority, and the list goes on. 

I often show a film that explores non-hegemonic presentations of masculinity in my intro anthropology course. Somewhere in Between is an earnest film that presents five men who talk about their exploration of their own masculinity in the context of clothing and Burning Man. Some students find the film amusing. Some take offence.  Others are puzzled. In the reflections I have had students write over the years some young men confess to finding the displays of gay and gender non-conforming clothing off putting.

This should be a chance for a learner to examine why they feel put-off or offended or amused or maybe nothing at all. To merely memorize details without thinking about it is a lost opportunity. But this is where learning becomes hard as this is the point the learner is asked to critically examine their own gender ideologies, their biases around sexuality, or their fear of not living up to a cultural norm they have never questioned. Anthropology done well reveals our vulnerabilities and discomforts us. Through this process we not only become more knowledgeable, we might also learn something about our own selves. All of which will make us better citizens of our worlds.


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