Fly on the Wall – Perceptive as a Bat, Blind as a Human

Fly on the Wall – Perceptive as a Bat, Blind as a Human

On dusky, late-summer nights bats flit and flicker by in what appears to be playful pursuit of insect prey. I marvel at how it might feel to actually be what, in German, is known as a fledermaus (Reverso-Softissimo, online). As a flying mouse, I’d traverse the starry night’s buffet and dance aloft with my nocturnal kin. Mice scurrying along the surface of the ground might pause to gaze up at me and squeakily murmur must be niiice as they go about what, to them, feels relatively like grovelling compared to my liberated aerial foraging. Athabasca education might also elicit this sort of response from students attending brick and mortar schools; after all, we at AU do appear to be liberated from the constraint of attending classes. Whether nocturnal and studious or diurnal and multitasking, we accomplish our goals away from the yoke of external regimentation. Our academic lifestyle may seem exotic and attractive to others yet the nature of how it feels to embark on distance education remains obscured.

Can we know or understand what it is like to be another person, let alone species? This question retains practical importance if we are to help non-students relate to our experiences and give them guidance as to what to expect if they choose to embark on a similar path. Adults returning to school from the wilderness of the real world may find the confines liberating or claustrophobic. The arid realm of solo study was certainly a shock to me given that memories of bygone school days were imbued with socializing among chummy (and not-so chummy) peers and interacting with deeply influential (as well as utterly caricatured) teachers. To embark on the distance experience recalls the concept of the uncanny (unheimlich). School is still school, and yet, creepily different. Ernst Jentsch “ascribes the essential factor in the production of a feeling of uncanniness to intellectual uncertainty…one does not know where one is, as it were.” (Jentsch in Freud, 2). Being an AU student can feel like being a regular pupil, only not quite. Something is eerily disorienting, inconspicuously askew, as though we find ourselves playing a familiar role in a movie out of a forgotten dream. It’s like being in familiar terrain but with a totally new set of senses almost akin to morphing from a human into a bat.

Thomas Nagel, in his 1974 essay What is it Like to Be a Bat, noted that that there must be certain characteristics present when a being is a bat and that this subjective reality is not limited to what we know about how their physiology works. As mammals we can somewhat imagine ourselves flapping with their wings and even sensing objects through echolocation. Nagel notes that “if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all” (Nagel, 438). As humans, we assume similar tendencies between ourselves and other species based on our common physiology. Yet bats use sonar and we use our eyes; their act of sight is drastically different than ours although we both succeed in apprehending objects such that we don’t bump into them. As with taking the same course in a classroom or through AU, the material enters our brains yet by different channels depending on the context of our instruction. In the case of bat subjectivity, “there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine” (Nagel, 440). Likewise, two humans can share their experiences of, say ANTH 275, but that doesn’t mean that they assimilate the material comparably. Akin to being colour-blind and seeing colours differently from the norm, perhaps we distance students possess bat-like echolocation as we feel our way through the dense undergrowth of our textbooks. Explaining the education process merely in terms of information intake, and subsequent recapitulation as retrievable knowledge, leaves out the actual subjective processes of learning that are vital to understanding experience. We might all end up with the same general facts in our mind but the knowledge we glean is a unique product of our environment.

The more we generalize about experiences the less we provide useful information; the outcomes of schooling may be similar in all instances, yet a would-be AU student needs to know just how different the skill sets of time management and solitary study are from the guided realm of classroom discussions and pop quizzes. In this sense, distance schooling makes for an entirely different breed of scholarly animal. Nagel reminds his readers that “it may be more accurate to think of objectivity as a direction on which the understanding can travel” and that a “shift to greater objectivity … does not take us further to the real nature of the phenomenon” (Nagel, 441). If we are to retain fidelity to the actual being of an experience, we have to remember that there are aspects unique to each individual and each set of experiences: “it is a condition of them referring to a common reality that their more particular viewpoints are not part of the common reality they both apprehend … [so] … the species-specific viewpoint is omitted” (Nagel, 445). It’s easy to elide specific facets of our educational experience even though these are precisely what make it uniquely our own.

Akin to giving someone a taste of the AU experience by assigning them some mock readings, one might wonder about donning a bat suit (complete with all the necessary physiological trappings such that our senses would perceive as a bat perceives). It’d be like cosplay where participants dress up as their favourite fantasy or anime character. One elite university in Taiwan holds a “Petite Fancy expo” four times a year that attracts up to 40 000 visitors (Ashcroft, online). This sort of ontological promiscuity where participants imagine themselves being their favourite characters, complete with proper dress and makeup, is akin to imagining oneself as a different type of species or a different sort of scholar. A person could certainly watch some TED talks or read a textbook and imagine themselves as an AU student. Yet there may be no replacing the abject terror of a looming deadline while facing stark walls and silence while sitting alone working on course material. The isolation of distance schooling, though fruitful and valued for many, is hard to translate without actually experiencing it. While cosplay involves “doing your best to become a character for a day”, acting as a distance student would require submitting oneself to a regiment of assignment deadlines and exam invigilations. (Tsing, online). Even then, knowing that one is being a distance student just to see what it’s like is different than actually being one. Making one’s own academic world is an essential aspect of distance schooling that is hard to replicate, just as its hard to imagine seeing without seeing with one’s own eyes.

We have to alter our being somehow to experience what we desire; to understand how things appear to an Other requires realizing that the physical facts of seeing are separate from the crucial element of interpretation. We have to be open to seeing our environment in a way conducive to success; this requires developing useful hermeneutics. Looking through other eyes is a great way to see if a lifestyle works for us; anyone considering AU ought to investigate their abilities with time management and ask themselves how good they are at being a self-starter. To partition necessary study time from a chunk of leisure is easier to imagine than do. What appears as one thing, free time, becomes quite another: a study opportunity. Martin Heidegger illustrates how seeing is tied to context in his description of studies where photos were taken of images seen by the eyes of glow worms and onto their large, troglodyte, retinas.

“The retinal image of a glow worm looking in the direction of a window was observed. The photograph clearly reveals a view of the window and its surrounding frame together with the mullion and transom; it reveals a large letter R which had been attached to the window pane, and in rather indeterminate outline even a view of the church tower which can be seen through the window. This is the view given on the retina of the glow worm as it looks toward the window. The insect eye is capable of forming this view. But can we infer from this what the glow worm sees?”

Removed from their caves we can only imagine what they saw through their being as glow worms. To imagine that the glow worm sees the church and the letter ’R’ in the same way we humans do, even though the objective facts of the appearance appear the same to us, requires the erasure of the glow worm’s interpretation (such as it is). The window provides a view to a human and an obstacle to a glow worm. It’s like how a quiet evening can be transformed by the ominous sense of a lingering deadline. Heidegger concludes, instructively for those considering how to describe the experiential reality of distance education, that “the difficult is not merely that of determining what it is that the insect sees but also that of determining how it sees.” (Heidegger, 231).

The glow worm sees to fulfill its needs which differ from our own. To aid a would-be student we must help stimulate them to realize just how different from normal school their experience will be. We have much more in common with our fellow scholars than we do with glow worms, yet the experience of learning at a distance is nonetheless unique. To give others a sense of what the AU journey entails requires us to remember these differences that we may come to take for granted. As Nagel states ” the more different from oneself the other experiencer is, the less success one can expect from this enterprise” of mutual understanding (Nagel, 442). We all bump into walls as we succeed in schooling, but learning how to see them in advance allows us to navigate.


Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.

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