“Ok, listen up! Everyone take off their shoes and put them on the table.” Are we in a post 9/11 airport? Nope, it’s the first day of art class and the student body is being asked as one to draw their own shoe. Inspiration drains away like chlorophyll from autumn leaves with the forced return of students to the flattening malaise of rigour and ritual wrought by institutionalized education. We AU savants aren’t immune to the busywork of courses but at least we do it how, when, and where we want. We may miss out on personal interactions with course-mates but at least we learn in our own way; it helps to remember the tension and challenges that we are liberated from as we return to, or continue, our distance education this fall.
A peculiar energy envelops students during their first moments in a new classroom, like being plunked into a hive of bees only to realize that we’re all bees too. So much uncertainty! What will the instructor be like: strict, strident, charismatic? And what of the other students; will they be friends, bullies, soul mates? At AU we generally miss out on the concrete tangible components of classroom life. Yet, our inspiration is intact and even expanded because we are here in our cyber classroom largely of our own volition. Our freedom of choice has brought us back to school in a special way; being at AU can be like having a secret agent identity or inhabiting an alternate universe. Social circumstances fall away and we learn face to face with the material; the personality of our tutor matters less than their efficacy in assisting our process.
As such, back to school sensations do exist in a distance setting. Many courses mandatory to complete our major can be pretty intimidating. And there’s no study buddy sitting with us to compare notes or maybe even to copy answers from. What we get from AU is pretty much what we put in; it all falls to us.
Martin Heidegger utilizes the term verfallen as a way of thinking of cause and effect: effects fall from causes such as for our graduation to fall into place we must take various core courses; our success falls from applying ourselves and leads to the effect of success. We stand and fall on our own at AU. In this way, for Heidegger, living authentically sounds very much like being a distance student. He uses the term Das Man (‘The They’) to refer to the socio-cultural superstructure in which we are embedded in brick and mortar educational settings.
“It is the-they which informs us, implicitly or explicitly, what is to be done and how it is to be done. The influence of the-they comes through (or is disclosed) when Dasein does what one does, such as when a workman hammers the way one hammers; or when a person drinks tea the way one drinks tea; or when somebody is shocked, delighted or appalled by what one is shocked, delighted, appalled by. Yet to act merely by virtue of the perceived injunctions of the-they runs the risk of what Heidegger calls ‘inauthenticity’ (Uneigentlich).” (Royle).
Classrooms being the pressure cookers they are, we at AU may benefit from the absence of Das Man. Things that seem to matter in a classroom (fashion, television shows, tech gadgets) easily take on a life of their own and can lead us away from seeing the big picture of our own academic inspiration as it unfolds. This ubiquitous The They can insidiously enter every fibre of our being.
Collective social environments bring further challenges. Certainly, classrooms can at times feel a bit like noxious war zones. With this in mind we might recall the Canadian folk singer Buffy St Marie who once decried the tendency of people to join wars en masse. She sang:
“he knows he shouldn’t kill and he knows he always will kill
You’ll for me my friend and me for you” (St. Marie).
School cliques and in-groups with their conflicts and peer pressure have these elements, but happily AU allows our return to school to remain focused on academic matters. We do still have to manage our personal lives, but we typically have more control over those since we choose who constitutes our friend group and family unit. If we don’t like someone it doesn’t have to be a battle; they can be unfriended and ignored rather than seen in class for the rest of a semester. In my experience online forums have been respectful, caring, and not fraught with the drama of more traditional settings. After all, we’re here to learn and glean wisdom from one another at AU!
The proverbial violence of classroom relations can also be tinged with power because of group-think. When most or all students have a particular political or social view, such as dominate in disciplines ranging from physics to psychology, it can be difficult to chart an independent or creative course. The weight of convention easily breeds conformity and the overarching power of The They translates into a powerful We. Perhaps a certain nursery rhyme (twisted Fly on the Wall-style) applies:
“This little pronoun went to market
This little pronoun stayed home
This little pronoun had roast beef, this little pronoun had none.
And this little pronoun went WE WE WE all the way home”
Preoccupation with what others think (the We if you will) and what constitutes a socially approved right answer can make classroom courses an exercise less in learning new things than in learning how to demonstrate fidelity to the professor’s viewpoint, or the classroom consensus, or both. As the old farming phrase goes the tallest weed in the field is always the first to be hacked down. Sometimes, in a typical classroom, it doesn’t pay to express our true beliefs on a given topic, but at AU we can write our essays and interact with our tutors free of the peanut gallery of our peers.
Forums are similar: others are willing to hear differing viewpoints and, even if not in agreement, we all have bigger fish to fry than engaging in egoistic peeing-matches so notorious in classroom settings dominated by a few loudmouths. In our forums, students are respectful and earnest rather than playing to an audience. This may be because the key audience we are trying to impress and gain respect from is ourselves and our future selves who we wish to become as we proceed through our educational journey.
But is it all serious pedagogical business during back to school season? By some accounts school is supposed to be fun! But not so fast; years ago a first-year sociology course I took began with us all reading an essay titled something like having fun as a social problem. Even fun can be problematic in school, such as during music appreciation at the primary level, where students are expected to participate and do the actions. In these settings being a part of the group is rigidly enforced, such as when a song like Sharon Lois and Brahm’s ‘Skinnamarinky Dinky Dink’ is played on the stereo. Like the ‘Macarena’ at a high school dance, non-participants may be singled out for ridicule or chastisement. Or they may be implored to join in and just have fun or just be happy.
The fact is, not everyone has fun performing asinine dance moves or actions and here AU allows us to say Skiddery don’t you dare. No one minds if we don’t dance because we’re here to learn and that’s fun in itself! Likewise, we don’t all have to engage in identical learning techniques like drawing our shoe. We can tailor our learning to our personal abilities and take advantage of what makes us effective; if it’s a shoe we must do, it can be anytime and anyplace…maybe while autumn camping next to a roaring fire! As we’ve seen, back to school Athabasca-style turns up the good and down the lame for distance students who would rather focus on their studies than the vicissitudes of classroom interaction. And if we do decide to dance, we can do it to our own drum because it’s as though no one is watching, or, at least, not a group of judgemental peers.