SXSWedu Part V: L’inattendu charentais
I’ve been through many back-to-schools. As a student and as a professor. They are, in fact, the real highlight of my year. They are so reassuring. A new start towards … chartered territories! Once past the early years when we trembled in anticipation of this invisible hand that designated what class, what group, which would assign us so and so teacher, back-to-school is indeed a rite where the element of surprise is conspicuously absent. It is, conversely, this return to a routine that charms us.
They say that the Charentaises, the oh-so-comfy slippers, were once called the "silent". They allowed servants to serve their masters silently while simultaneously waxing the floor. Back-to-school, summoning us to the known, is maybe also inevitably, behind the celebration of compliance, the manifestation of the persistence of a certain power, a balance of power. This is the hierarchical cleavage, ostentatious, the better to find its rags. Not just in the "teacher / student" divide (Ah! These back-to-school messages, so well prepared and orchestrated, oscillating between a welcoming invitation and blackmail). Of course, one does not line up in the hall at university, waiting patiently for the holder of "sesame" (in our childhood, remember, everything started with the guardian of the key to the door of the classroom!) It remains however an entrance, the first words, the first tirade. "A promise of secure audacity" in the words of another Charentaise, Segolene Royal, who in the game of Mille Bornes that is French politics, drew the "Indestructible" card.
If the absence of waiting is the condition for a meeting, the return is too often for me, unfortunately, a way to miss connecting with each other. To start again one’s role, establishing a contract by depositing between itself and its students this strange document that is called a syllabus, this fable of contents. "I have a plan for you! Do not worry, I'll tell you what it is. Throughout this semester and now, from one semester to another, everything will be planned, recorded and pointed. No surprise, no error, no cross-roads. We'll take a path and I give you immediately and precisely the map. "I wonder why teaching seems to have such a need for boredom. I find this reasonable only in the institutional setting. We must not forget, this document is also a monitoring tool, me on my students, my students on me, but also the institution watching over both of us. I must confess that in my eyes, the usual arguments of the "quality of learning" favoured by such a mean rings hollow.
I dream of another course. A 1/course. A simple theme launched as a subject of improvisation. The issue of evaluation evacuated in the first minutes: "Send a letter to yourselves. What do you hope to achieve in the time we have together? Reread the letter down the road. Then give yourself a grade, since it must be good." Then, sessions reveal themselves as surprise boxes. Various venues. Different times.
"Learning can probably be combined with a certain routine, but it is amazement that really makes us understand."
Without an inert thought or reproductive thinking, it is about alert and creative thinking. Without being demiurge either. Give the keys to my students; let things happen, without chasing the silences. Nor failures either.
I know this will not take place this fall. Not this semester. And it is humming "Little Boxes" I walk up Louis-Colin Street.
From what started last winter, in Austin, Texas, alongside SXSWedu, you read today the fifth and last column in the series built on the idea of a double word: learning / understanding. This is a pivotal season for me, and I am pleased that these little writings have attracted many people that I value, including students who share the same expectation of coloring outside the educational lines.
After the summer, the season of not doing much, thinking of a non-traditional course goes without doubt. The best things in my life, after all I have learned over these long months of August, in Burgundy, when the sun weighs so heavy. I see my feet gently stirring the sand of a stream, my fishing rod in one hand, my white "cigarette" cap lying on the water, the frenzied dance of the shiny studs at the end of the Water Queen thin blue 21 iron bait. The feeling of being out of place. It is perhaps this that bothers me the most when the first class waits for me, the fact that nobody, neither my students nor I really are "in our place."
And how could it be otherwise if "teaching makes us free"?
Illustration: Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation