Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Uncle Toby Goes to College

One novel I always mean to get back to--if for nothing else its startling relevance to teaching and learning--is Laurence Sterne's 18th Century masterpiece Tristram Shandy.  In it we are introduced to Uncle Toby, a military man invalided by a groin injury who retires and spends the bulk of his days obsessed with the subject of siege warfare.  Everything in his life--personal relationships, politics, even courting the handsome widow next door--is viewed within the confines of Uncle Toby's idee fixe (or hobby horse as it is called in the novel).

Each human consciousness, Sterne suggests, is a comic jumble of free floating associations, one thought blending aimlessly into the next with no rational order or direction.  The result is that none of us can possibly communicate our personal experience clearly to anyone else because everything we experience is distorted by our own hobby horses and endless digression.

I have been thinking of this idea a lot lately, mostly because it's the first few weeks of the semester and I have been working so hard to tell the students what not to do on the first assignment.  It does not matter how clear I am, how many times I say it on-line, in class and on the syllabus.  It doesn't matter that I actually have them speak aloud the words "I will not do X."  Inevitably, a goodly portion of my students will do exactly what I told them not to do on the first assignment. I've come to accept that a certain amount of ambient white noise unavoidably accompanies teaching and learning.

Even though the characters in Tristram Shandy never do understand one another, they somehow achieve a kind empathetic correspondence.  They come to find each other's indecipherable babble pleasantly soothing, not unlike perhaps the soft whir of a window fan on a summer evening.  In other words, I have no idea what you're talking about, but I don't mind your rattling on.  In fact, I kind of like it.

You know, given the shear difficulty of penetrating into another consciousness, it's just a gob-smacking miracle that any of us is able to teach or learn anything.

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