Zen and the Art of the Course Description (19 February 2016)

Course descriptions bridge the gap between the university’s corporate model and the classroom’s pedagogical space, aiding in achieving satisfactory enrollment “numbers.” In this way, the description of a class has to do the work of both an advertisement and an infomercial, appealing to students as well as cuing them about the course’s content. Despite our idealistic desires about learning for learning’s sake that might suggest otherwise, it is important, then, that a course seem interesting or “fun” so that students will actually register for it. However, this can be a fine line to walk: if an instructor goes overboard with trying to make the course appealing, students who do take the course can end up with something like academic buyer’s remorse—feeling that the course they signed up for is not represented in the classroom they occupy. Typically, this means that the student expected to have a lot of fun and (surprise!) the course turns out to be a lot of work. A balance must be struck between appealing to students’ interests and hinting at the rigorous intellectual labor required of a college course. The course description can be the first clue (and compelling advertisement) for how students and instructors will achieve these ambitions together.

As I tried to formulate my own course description for a class I plan to teach next Fall semester (ETS 181: Class and the Literary Text PLUG!), I began to consider how the course description is the first glimpse into what the educational future holds for students. For some, this tiny blot of text is the first step into opening their mind (and consciousness) toward the fundamental questions of the humanities: Who are we? What are we doing in the classroom? What are the forces that shape our world? How can we be engaged members of our classroom, society, and world? These are, of course, age-old questions that teachers have asked for hundreds of years. As I meditated on how to describe the content and objectives of my own course, I came to realize that a profound dialectic of instructional philosophy found in Zen Buddhism could also be found in the humanities classroom.

The practice of Zen Buddhism can be conceptually described as having two schools, each of which can represent different pedagogical ideologies that surface in humanities classrooms. Rinzai Zen practice is centered on the use of the koan, an absurd or impossible question engineered to push the mind away from dualistic thinking and toward “enlightenment,” a state of total awareness and detachment. The most well known example of a Rinzai Zen koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” A practitioner may work on the same koan for weeks or even years. Working through the experience of frustration and confusion that results from a koan allows a student of Buddhism to better understand the limits of their own internal logics.

Many humanities classrooms follow a strikingly similar logic as Rinzai Zen, asking students to formulate their own answers to questions of aesthetics, ethics, and ideology like “What is beauty?” or “Can society achieve equality?” that are as seemingly absurd or impossible as any koan. For many humanities instructors, the goal of asking such questions is not for the student to answer, once and for all, what beauty or truth is, but to get the student to ask “Why is it important that we must ask these questions?” This metacognitive approach can seem like the equivalent of a student’s enlightenment: finding a contemplative state rooted in higher-order concerns that engender critical thinking.

However, this goal-oriented approach is not the only way for students to come to a greater understanding of their role in the classroom. As many instructors have experienced, sometimes it is in the least-planned moments that students learn the most. Soto Zen, Rinzai’s competing school, rejects the centrality and formality of the koan as well as the goal of a particular “enlightened” state. For practitioners of Soto Zen, there is no goal to be achieved beyond the practice itself; the only object is to be awake and aware of the here and now. Translated to the humanities seminar, this practice asks the students to be fully immersed in learning, but also to move outside of ideology into subjective and intuitive experiences of the classroom and the world. In my experience, some of the best discussions come from this place of open awareness and improvisation. By letting strict lesson plans and pre-designed questions take a backseat to the participation and engagement of students in the moment, instructors can encourage students to seize their own agency, develop a community of ideas, and make the classroom their own.

Getting students to that “a-ha” moment of realization can be rewarding for the instructor, but often times, students get the most sustained intellectual value from pedagogical experiences that remain open-ended. By moving pedagogy away from structured goals, and, yes, even grade-oriented experiences, students can continue to build their knowledge years later, rather than leaving their experience, and their transcript, at the door of the classroom.

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Every student learns differently. For some people, the Rinzai approach to the humanities will best allow them to reach their educational aspirations, and they will emerge from the University system with a degree that is the material evidence of a more “enlightened” state. For these students, a course description should explain exactly what they will learn—the why is less important. For others, education is a lifelong process that doesn’t start and stop on an academic schedule. These students might benefit from a Soto approach that allows them to “sit” with their new knowledge and apply it to their life inside and outside the classroom. For these students, a course description should explain why they want to be in that class now, and why it will still mean something to them in 2, 10, and even 50 years. A well-balanced course description hopefully appeals to both types of students and ideally makes them excited about the possibilities their learning experience holds. But regardless of why the students are there, the course description has facilitated the most important function of a classroom: the students have chosen to find their way to it.


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.

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