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Learning from the classroom chair

Posted By: Christopher Moffett on July 25, 2002
I’m heartened to see others exploring these issues as well. While the literature is indeed thin, perhaps we can begin to change that. I have been exploring similar questions for the last several years and just presented some of my discoveries in a workshop at the NAACI conference recently, so I thought I would share some of my current thoughts.

My interest in this area arose out of my role as a philosophy teacher in the trenches. Armed only with a mediocre text book, and facing a room full of students that didn’t want to be there (it’s amazing what you can find out if you just ask), I had to find a way to teach the intro course that is required of all sophomores.

As we begin our mad dash through the history of philosophy I begin to ground the discussion and draw in the students by weaving together a number of different approaches all, at one point or another, coming to bear on the ordinary classroom chair. All the while tying in the discussion to the philosopher du jour, we begin to explore the micro-environment of the class, namely the chair-body interaction. By entering philosophy through the students own immediate experience of being there, we can directly explore solutions to the conflict between their desire not to be there and the imposition to stay. Philosophy then becomes a means for creating dynamic solutions at a very tangible level.

To give an example, obvious parallels can be discovered between the classroom environment and Plato’s cave allegory. Weave in a discussion of the relationship between embodiedment, learning, and power in the movie The Matrix, explore experientially different ways of relating to their own environment with its tacit power structures, have them write their own allegory elaborating on these themes (one of the core assignments), and you would have to try very hard not to make it compelling for the students. Because what happens is that they begin to realize what is at stake in their own experience and how an understanding of Plato (in this example) can provide useful distinctions for sorting out their own options with respect to their learning environment not only at the micro level but also in terms of their relationship with “School” and further with how all this interacts with “The Real World.”

I have also found that these distinctions are particularly useful within the context of a Business Ethics course. Especially since I would argue that the most deep seated (pun precisely intentional) “learning” experience that students will take with them into the work force is the ability to sit still for long periods of time and suppress the instinct to explore the power structures that are at play within the immediate environment, all in the name of understanding them elsewhere. To teach a course in Business Ethics within this context without exploring the context itself seems to me to be an exercise in bad faith in which Ethics becomes a pretty cover for maintaining a lack of awareness and a paucity of choice.

To frame it in terms of one of Jonathan’s initial questions, perhaps the most overlooked dilemma of Ethics is to know when something needs to come to the foreground and when it ought to recede into the background. When and where ought we to be concerned with power? If this isn’t addressed then Ethics all to easily becomes a sleight of hand, a misdirection that covers over the critical movements of power. Witness the call for Ethics in school and business, and you find that it is not the people who call for it that feel that they need to sit in the classroom chair themselves. By bringing something so ordinary and beneath consideration, and yet so powerful for controlling awareness, as the classroom chair to the foreground, students begin to see how this sleight of hand can work. As they become more nuanced in their own perception of how foreground and background work they can begin to formulate useful and interesting solutions to these ethical issues.

I can say that students often think the whole thing is strange and off the wall, but by consistently returning philosophy to a sense of wonder at what is right in front of our noses, or rather, under our butts, they grow to appreciate how meaningful the inquiry can be. Besides, we have fun. In any case, I’m not sure if this is along the lines of what you meant by “the ways in which instructors use classroom artifacts, ranging from the hi-tech to the mundane, to support representations of knowledge and practice in particular fields,” but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

My initial feeling is that what I am trying to do is in a way go beyond mere representation to exploring a rich interplay of different experiences and interactions. One of the ways that this might differ from a more architectural analysis and engagement (although I think this is critical) is that one can immediately use what is at hand as a way of entering into a meaningful and relevant inquiry. In fact, in the face of the “savage inequalities” that Ross has mentioned, nothing seems to be more empowering then to explore precisely how these inequalities work and begin to create immediate choices that can begin to shift the dynamic. Jonathan mentioned the importance of articulated space. How can we, given the space that is present, begin to articulate it for ourselves? That is, how can we not only begin to speak about it, but how can we enter into physical articulations with it in more and more savvy ways? For this, it is not enough to engage through representation, architect's drawings, or images. One also has to learn by the seat of the pants.

Let me end, by seconding the call for sharing and collaboration on this. Lacking much substantive literature, these issues beg for more interactions that can help develop a sustained inquiry. In that spirit I would be more than happy to share my growing bibliography with others and would love to see what others are working with. But more critically, I hope we can continue these discussions either in this forum or elsewhere.
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 physical setting for instruction / learning by jonathan fraser on June 19, 2002
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