12 September 2012

Learning: developing awareness

I just read some excerpts from David Foster Wallace's graduation speech - his only public speech - delivered to Kenyon College in 2005, which has now been immortalised in This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. There are a couple of points that struck home in particular, as intrinsic to what I want to achieve in terms of life-long skills.

Wallace deliberates on the idea of suicide by firearms - this is not something I want to teach per se - but rather his idea of how the person wielding the gun is dead long before they pull the trigger. I want my learners to live their lives and embrace their experiences - not go through the motions of being alive. I want them to relish opportunities to grow and learn and share - just as I do. Every time I am stressed with how much I need to do, or how many projects I am planning, or how much reading, marking or planning I need to do, I try to ground myself with the notion that I am making a difference. Somewhere. To someone. I try to fit in my runs, Yoga, family and PL with the balm that soothes by telling myself that I am eking out every second of my existence; pushing myself; making the most of it (the Bon Jovi lyrics Live while I'm alive and sleep when I'm dead play too often at these times, though I try not to admit that to myself).

I like to think that I am not simply going through the motions. I like to think I may contribute to someone's life insome way, in the same vein Wallace suggests we need to go outside of our "internal, hard-wired" self-obsessed monologue and see the world through a lens not centred upon our self. But this is hard; every experience we have is through and within ourself, as Wallace says, "there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of".  The trick is to turn this monologue upon its head. When I am the learner in for example, a workshop or lecture, as I was at the Google Summit all weekend, I try to make the experience count. Even if the delivery is dull or the material old-hat, I try to take it on board and see things from the point of view of learner - and attempt to avoid similar in my own lessons. Every experience, even bad ones can be learning experiences that we can use for the betterment of our teaching. If we turn that internal lens away for a second - or at least use a different lens to interpret our self-centred view, our "natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone", through the eyes of another 'self', we are seeing compassionately. We are contributing.

Wallace sums it up more eloquently that I ever could;
"The liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

Ironically - or not - four years ago today, Wallace committed suicide. By firearm.

From Popova, Maria. "Brain Pickings." Brain Pickings. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Sept. 2012. <http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/09/12/this-is-water-david-foster-wallace/?utm_source=feedburner>.

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