This Academic Life
  Pedagogy as rehabilitation
A few weeks back, I managed to injure my knee while running. Not quite sure how it happened -- maybe I tried to do to much too quickly while in Poland, without sufficiently warming up first? In any event, all of a sudden I began to feel pain when walking during the day, especially after I'd been sitting for a while; I also started to hear cracking and popping sounds when climbing stairs.

These subtle (!) signals convinced me that something was wrong, and I sought advice from a local running guru. His diagnosis: I probably pulled my patellar tendon, and would need to rehab for a while: ice, exercises to strengthen the relevant muscles (the quadriceps, actually, since that's what holds the kneecap in place), and a regimen of reduced milage and more walk breaks than usual. I also went to my local running shop, where their gurus diagnosed a slight tendency for me to pronate, and sold me some shoe inserts (which have helped a lot) and a knee brace so that I wouldn't re-injure myself while rehabbing. It's been several weeks now, and am seeing progress -- no more pain when walking, and only a little twinge now and then during and immediately after running.

The most interesting thing about this injury has been how much more sensitive it has made me to the subtle signals that my body sends me when I am running, and even when I'm not running. The first thing about rehabbing from an injury is that you have to monitor it very closely, especially something like a knee injury for a runner. Every step puts pressure on the knee, so every moment holds the potential for producing more pain. So as I run, part of my awareness stays down by my knee, checking how it feels and always alert for tell-tale signs that I need to sow down or stretch out more. And from there I have become more attuned to other points of tension -- the not-quite-cramp that I got in the hamstring of my other leg this morning, the odd tightness in my shoulder when got up this morning, and so forth. All of these things provoke some kind of attention now, and I either stop to try to stretch out the tension, or run through it while monitoring to see if it goes away (which sometimes it does). I feel more able to discern things going on with my body as I run, and in that sense I am grateful to the injury.

Running, if done properly, produces an openness in me, a kind of expansion of a zone of meditative inner peace that bring with it a profound spiritual relaxation even though -- and perhaps even because -- my body is moving and working. In order to get there, though, I first have to work through points of tension: physical, yes, but also and perhaps even more importantly mental and spiritual points of tension. Things that are on my mind, worries that I have, various concerns that occupy and command my attention. And I often don't even notice that they are doing so until I start trying to relax and open in this spiritual way. As with physical injuries, I find myself disclosing these points of mental and spiritual tension as parts of the environment, parts of the world that are in a sense given over to me from the outside of my awareness. While running I make a habit of looking around my world, as it were, to see what kinds of things are there on my horizon or even closer, what sorts of obstacles to that profound openness and sense of peace and spiritual connexion are in some sense present on the margins of my awareness. And then I try to massage them away, or run through them, or just hold them loosely and watch them dissolve.

Freud would probably call these "cathexes": knots of psychic energy that impede normal functioning, produce neuroses and complexes, and have to be dissolved through a psychoanalytic technique of bringing them into consciousness from the realm of the unconscious. Therapy, in other words. I am bothered by two aspects of this analytic: the pure subjectivism or it, as though the individual person were a self-contained unit (so that I somehow carry "my" unconscious mind around with me, and all the parts of my psyche exist in a nice me-shaped box with firmly delimited boundaries), and the suggestion that these knots of tension are somehow "really" or "objectively" present, out there to be discovered by the psychoanalyst in the same way that a natural scientist is supposed to discover facts and serve as a neutral conduit through which knowledge of those facts can flow. In other words, I am bothered by the liberal neopositivism of the Freudian psychoanalytic account -- by its individualism and by its dualism.

Instead of dualism, with its notion that there is a world "out there" to be discovered by the classically objective scientist, it seems to me that things like mental and spiritual obstacles to profound openness arise rather from a way of seeing, a way of worlding, within which the notions of "obstacles" and "openness" make sense. Such a monistic conception acknowledges that this way of framing and figuring the situation is a world-disclosive metaphor rather than a neutral reflection of the One True Way That Things Are (to paraphrase Richard Rorty). It's similar to the use that I used to make of tarot cards while in college; I read tarot cards for scores of people, largely because I found it a good way of getting people to be self-reflective and construct their own narratives of what was going on in their lives. The cards are evocative and suggestive, but generally vague enough that one can formulate any number of narratives from a particular arrangement; a good reading provides nothing more than an opportunity for the subject to articulate a set of concerns, and a good reader prompts and presses but never, never attempts to provide a definitive (or even too clear) interpretation of any given arrangement. That's work for the subject to do her- or himself. Things emerge from this process: the subject of a good reading gets a chance to clarify sets of concerns, articulate a narrative of self, perhaps alter their context or work directly on their horizon. Were the issues that arise somehow "there" before the reading? I don't know, and there's no way to know, but I don't much care.

As for individualism, I find that as I open I encounter issues and knots that are trans-personal, intersubjective in the strong sense of that word: common possessions of a group or community of which I am a part. My language may be the limits of my world, as Wittgenstein put it, but my language is never wholly mine in the liberal individualist sense of a personal possession. "I" am always a node in a network, located at the intersection of a whole set of boundaries and articulations and concerns and contexts; the further I go "into" myself when opening, the more I find others and connexions to them. when I was reading tarot cards for people, I had to first open myself so that I could follow the subtle connexions that the subject was following in knitting together her or his narrative. There are subtle cues, some physical, most not physical but mental or spiritual, that reveal points of tension in such a setting; I find that the best thing to do is to try to remain open and then simply go where I am subtly pushed by intuition -- a kind of spiritual discernment. At that point I am no longer certain whether I am working on "my" issues or someone else's issues, and I don't think that it much matters. We are working on our issues and points of tension, with the goal always remaining that profound inner peace and openness. If I think about it too hard, it doesn't work very well, and I relapse into acting from my soul/mind/contingently articulated self -- which is fine for a strictly delimited context, but if one is trying to work directly on the parameters of that context, such activity is self-defeating and gets stuck in a performative contradiction.

Pedagogy is like this for me. My colleagues talk a lot about "class preparation," by which they seem to mean something having to do with getting notes and information in order. I don't get this. For classes in which I am lecturing, sure, I like to have some sort of outline to work from, and these days I like to use Apple's Keynote to put bullet-point notes up on the screen; these become the sheet music around which I will improvise. But for class discussion? "Preparation" for me usually means re-reading the text(s) that we will be discussing so that they are fresh in my mind, and then trying to relax and open before and during the discussion. In so doing, I often take advantage of Heidegger's maybe-not-strictly-accurate-but-who-the-heck-cares-anyway etymological connection between "think," "thank," and the old Anglo-Saxon term thanc, meaning "heart" -- which, in accordance with the typical Heideggerian obsession with forests, is then somehow linked up with a sacred grove of trees in he middle of the woods. [Forget Smokey the Bear; if you want a serious defender of the forests, try Heidegger, who I tend to picture out there in the woods with his walking stick wearing lederhosen and a feathered cap, allowing thought of Being to unfold from the clearing/Lichtung that he is. Remember, kids, only you can prevent the decline of man into inauthenticity and technology.

Anyway, the tight interconnection between thinking (an activity of the soul) and opening (an "activity," more or less, of the heart or spirit) heartens [sorry, couldn't resist the pun] me. As we discuss some issue in class, think it through communally, we open; the conversation flows, knots of intersubjective tension are disclosed, massaged, dissolved; we start to world together, and all of our horizons meld and fuse and change. Then class ends and we are left to our own devices until the next session, when hopefully the process begins again. I only run every other day; rest is important, to allow time for the muscles to recover from the stress placed on them by running. Then we can run and open again, without pulling something and producing pain while walking. and slowly, over time, we can build up to doing this more and more, and maybe even being more open together more of the time.

Of course, there is a way that rehabilitation never ends. After my knee is better, I disclose other points of tension and pain, other knots in the intersubjective context, other places where the spirit (for lack of a better term) gets stuck. Releasing that flow, helping to provoke openness, remains, I think, the central pedagogical task. Whether the students retain any information or any practical skills is a decidedly secondary or tertiary issue. All I can do is push and prod, try to be aware of the points of tension on/in my own horizon (which is as little "my own" as the language that I use to express and disclose it), and go where my intuition pushes me. Knee braces and walk breaks also help.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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