play, work, and learning

i think that working with theory should be like a kind of cosplay…a way that we animate another character in order to feel into and see the world differently. so for me, learning is always playing. but making the cosplay costume requires a great deal of planning, trying on, sewing, and internalizing new scripts. i know i know…this metaphor might be a bit forced to you, but really. for me, theory is cosplay

i’d like to start a conversation about play and learning and work and learning. as we all know, learning requires a great deal of time, much of it work. but play does come into the mix: as we play with new ideas and with the conceptual landscapes of theory, we actually begin to synthesize what we encounter and, hopefully, generate new patterns of action and thinking. this relationship between play and learning brings together vygotsky’s “proximal zone of development” and csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow”: if we have a structure in which we place ourselves on the edge between our capabilities and what we do not yet know, we can lose ourselves in the work of creation or learning. in fact, vygotsky famously said in a 1933 lecture that in play a child is a “head taller,” already moving beyond her capabilities. such ideas about play also inform some of bateson’s ideas. nonetheless, at the university level, we expect that much of our learning will be decidedly unplayful

for some of us, of course, reading and writing approach play. we have trained ourselves from a young age to enjoy reading and the kinds of internal conversations and imagined debates it provokes. such leanings are what draw those of us who are academics into the work, i suspect. however, today when i face the classroom, i encounter people who do not read, or at least generally do not read the books and articles i assign. much of this problem can be attributed to the time constraints students have at berklee. some of it could be attributed to inexperience. where we face the latter, i wonder how to proceed. at the college level how does one cultivate the habits of attention to texts with multiple overlaying arguments, to primary sources whose most interesting features might be in the margins, or to literary works that require prolonged rumination on sound and symbol? is it too late?

recently, a friend posted on facebook about a complaints concerning an overly long syllabus that he feared that unfortunately learning required a terrific amount of work, something that he often wants to forget. over the last few years, i’ve felt that i might have neglected that fact a bit. my syllabi become shorter as i delete readings that i find interesting, challenging, even necessary for students to have a sense of the discipline of anthropology or the history of east asia from 1800. and sadly, these readings are the ones that tend to be the most playful in the sense that they are often writerly, playing games with the reader–and probably with the writer herself as she tries to rethink her assumptions and set what we thought we knew (but know imperfectly) in a different light. how do i get students to find the play in these texts, i wonder?

after this many years, you’d think i know. but there’s still more space of play in my teaching–and hard work, i fear

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