Pedagogy of the Absurd: Kinesthetic Learning

One of the benefits (among the many, many, many) of being in a low stress environment is that you can let your mind wander a bit in “noble repose,” the ocio noble José Enrique Rodó had in mind when, channeling Marx,  he lauded the virtues of being relaxed and relaxing in Ariel. I’m most productive when I’m feeling lazy, when I can sit down and throw myself into tasks I enjoy rather than   wrestle  with them while constantly looking over my shoulder. My thoughts are clearer, my chess game is better, and I can get more accomplished in less time than when I’m stressed out.

To this ends, this semester I promised myself I would get back to pedagogy somewhat and try out a few things I’ve always wanted to do. One of them was experimenting with kinesthetic learning as much as possible. I’m not big into “learning styles” per se (everyone learns something from a variety of approaches) but I was interested in seeing how adopting a kinesthetic approach to reading certain literary texts would improve students’ understanding of those texts.

For example, in my Eng 352: The Journey in Literature class I wanted students to read Columbus’s diary. As someone in Latin American Literature, a field where the diary is foundational, I’m always somewhat dismayed that students’ biggest exposure to Columbus happens everywhere but through his own, highly problematic words. One the one hand, the diary is fairly dry stuff interspersed with startling racism. On the other, these mundane attributes become more fascinating the more you reflect upon Columbus’s commitment to fulfilling his contract with the Catholic Kings and underscoring the vital success of his mission despite the fact he’s really found little-to-no gold, nor the sought-after passage to the Orient. It’s easy to heap disdain on Columbus for his deplorable actions, but far more difficult to understand the complex web of connections that drive him to such actions.

Once we’d read the assigned passages of the diary over several days, I decided that it was time for the students in groups of 3-4 to go out into the world and construct a report about what goes on on campus based on several different scenarios.  Among others, scenarios included being a freshman again, being a concerned parent, and being a Spanish explorer. Theoretically, students were exploring the concept locus of enunciation by putting it into practice. That is, students would put into embodied practice an abstract concept they most likely would otherwise find intimidating.

Overall the activity was successful. Students successfully stepped out of their shoes to engage campus from a different (epistemic almost?) locus, and moved towards a more profound understanding of how limitations of perception and prejudice shape even the most objective of viewers. Both of the “explorer” groups went so far as to being back specimens, ranging from leaves and trash to students they “discovered.” When returning to Columbus’s diary, our discussions on motivation, perception, and reality were much, much richer, and  students had a firmer grasp on the surreality of the text itself, an wholly accurate account of a voyage that is no less fictional and sets that stage for genocide. Much like their own voyages, the conditions that structured Columbus, and hence his text, produce these real-world outcomes long before the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa María set sail.

Given this success I’m interested to see what other kinds of meaningful kinesthetic activities I can come up with to help students move through literary texts via their engagement with the physical world. It’s a surreal, irreal feeling to turn students loose into “the-world-as-experiential-classroom” but in this case it worked. It’s not quite Punk Archeology, but in its ludic, almost absurdist approach to learning, it’s ______________________________.

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