Monday, 18 October 2010

Lifting the Veil

As most of you know (due to various past posts), I didn't go the traditional route to university. When I was a child university was rather like the country mansion of some barmy lord – they were always barmy. I would get the odd glimpse, through dense woodland, whilst on, say, the fast train to Brighton, but there was no question of ever gaining access. Nor would I have wanted to. I'd heard the myths (then known as the 'god given' truth), especially the ones regarding people who tried to get 'above their station' by passing exams, and thus fooling the 'powers that be'. These stories usually ended in death or insanity.

At some point I met someone who knew someone who had been and survived, and, what's more, had a great time (though it was mooted that that was because he was a 'dropout'). Then I met someone who had been, and didn't look like a dropout (own teeth, clean fingernails, didn't wear green and blue together). Then I began to meet lots of people who either had been, were planning to go, or were actually there. One day university looked like nothing more than another option. You didn't have to be special, chosen, or odd. You merely had to be able to process information in a certain way.

I was a fairly crap undergraduate. I spent most of my three years trying to raise the veil of bewilderment high enough to see/hear/feel what was going on, in order to get some purchase on the courses. It was a bloody heavy veil, though, and I was prone to dropping it at terribly inconvenient moments (once it fell so hard it nearly took my nose off, but that's another story). Sometimes, for no apparent reason, a hole would appear in it, and, voila, I'd be able to see perfectly. During those moments of clarity much needed connections seemed to form themselves. But the veil of bewilderment demons would work quickly to fix the hole with their sharp little needles and mismatching thread. I would then have to try to remember those connections: imagine them, write them, draw them. I don't think I ever quite got their likeness down perfectly, but I guess I didn't do too badly as I did pass the courses, and get the degree.

It's a very strange thing, but the veil of bewilderment became very fine, sheer and light, for the whole of my masters degree. I never really had any problems with the work. I could see what I needed to and the whole course was pretty much a joy from start to finish. Though I constantly expected things to change, for the veil to turn from tulle to tweed (or worse), I never questioned why it didn't. Now, however, I am teaching first year undergrads, and I need some answers, badly.

I can see some of my students struggling to peer through their own veils of bewilderment, and want – no! need – to help them. To show them how to lighten their veils, lift them, peek through them, find a clean, sheer spot from which to look. I've had some limited success, but at times my own gets tangled up in theirs, and we end up tripping each other up. Sometimes I can see their veils altering in density during our discussions. Last week, though, most of the students came in clanking. Their veils had turned to iron.

Now in order to garner answers I need to formulate some questions, but where to start?

Mushrooms growing below a sycamore tree not far from the classroom. I'm not sure that they have the questions, but I like them.


The Weaver of Grass said...

Interesting Eryl. I have often thought that going straight from the sixth form to university is a bad thing. (I taught sixth form so have experience of that end). I even know a maths teacher in the private sector who went Public school to university and then back to that same public school to teach maths. It always struck me that his experience of life was nil.
Maybe an enforced gap year or two or three would help but I do honestly think the differing methods of imparting information, the need for discussion, the need for prvate study etc. is too big a jump.
We were talking about this the other day - how at university in theory the student listens to a lecture, is so fired with enthusiasm for what they hear that the first free period they have they rush to the library or to the internet to find out more. I took my degrees as a mature student (I got my final degree at the age of 40) - I was fired with enthusiasm and worked incredibly hard - and enjoyed every minute of it - but then I had nothing like boyfriends, growing up, leaving home etc. on my mind - just sheer concentration.
If you think of the questions I shall be interested to hear them - and the answers.
Sorry for going on so, but I find the subject very interesting.

The Unbearable Banishment said...

I have exactly zero hours spent in a university. The whole higher eduction train left the station with me still standing on the platform. So not having any experience in that environment, I don't know how you would approach your dilemma. I DO know that bewilderment is an inherent part of the human condition and is something that everyone has to weed their way through for their own good. They owe it to themselves and those poor tuition-paying parents.

Sausage Fingers said...

Imagine how Harry Potter felt

Kim Ayres said...

I left school at 16 and my opinion of university was not unlike the Barmy Lord's mansion you describe.

I returned to education as a mature student and ended up doing philosophy.

I remember uttering several times out loud, to anyone who cared to listen, that sometimes it seemed bloody impossible - you needed a degree in philosophy just to understand the bloody questions and do the course.

In fact, I was right - now I have a degree in philosophy, I would be able to understand the questions, and know how to set about tackling and challenging them.

But that's precisely what education is - learning how to lift that veil.

Anonymous said...

Is clarity all it's cracked up to be?

You could bake them a cake.

What was all that about your nose falling off?

Anonymous said...

First I must excuse my use of this nice language. I am not sure what you teach - history or something of the large field of "Geisteswissenschaften" - I clinge to this "old" name, sorry.
If I get it right a starting point is needed. The basis is man: And because the only person who possibly has a chance to answer my questions is me, the starting point is me. Look for Kant's famous questions. I teached "Kulturgeschichte", I was very free with my seminar, I choose as starting point the question about history - what is it and to you? In the hope to force them to think about it and take a (temporary) position.
If talking shows the thinking ... I forced them to define words, to understand the words: Sadly enough at the Gymnasien in the Latin classes (if they still exist) no more Ethymologie is teached - they often have no idea what is in the words - sie kennen nur die Worte und haben keine Begriffe, but the Begriff is important.
The job is to make them think, express and formulate concisely. If that works ...

Eryl said...

Weaver ~ I completely agree with you about the gap year(s). My best student, by far, is a young man who worked as a chef for ten years. He is not afraid to say, in front of the whole class, 'I have no idea whatsoever about this...' when he doesn't know something. He is completely open to the learning experience, very enthusiastic and exploratory. The difference, I think, between him and the young kids is that he is here to learn and they are here to increase their chances of getting a job. They just want it to be over so they can get on with their lives. Not all of them, of course, one or two of them are eager to learn and fully engaged but their inexperience lets them down.

On the other hand, one or two of my older (40+) students, who have, perhaps, become overly rusty, are really struggling. That's not to say they won't be fine in a few weeks, they just need to let go of the pool edge and dive in.

I'll be working on these questions for a while, I should think, but as soon as I get a grip of them I'll share. Very glad to have piqued your interest.

UB ~ All I can say is it's the universities' loss, you'd make a great professor with those beautiful rare books lining the walls of your study. And, you talk such sense.

Kim ~ you're right, of course, and a tutor can only be a guide. I sometimes worry, though, that instead of guiding I obscure their view further. Their first essay is due tomorrow, so I guess I'll find out just how much has got through in the last few weeks.

Jenny ~ I saw a recipe for skull cup-cakes today, I could bake them some of those for halloween.

My poor nose has take a few knocks over the last few years, not quite sure why. I'm not as bad as the father-in-law of a friend who keeps trapping his in their new sliding patio doors!

Eryl said...

Mago ~ I teach textual analysis and critical thinking, a course designed to underpin the rest of their studies. Etymology is part of it and I keep telling them the dictionary is their best friend.

I am going to take your comment to bed with me and sleep on it. Thank you for it.

Mary Witzl said...

I'm glad you lifted that veil!

It never ceases to amaze me that some of the smartest people I know were kept from university by the idea that it was beyond their ability. In America, it's a given that anybody who isn't impossibly thick will go to university (we call it 'college'), and there are no veils. Unless you're talking about the poncier Ivy League schools. Those veils are tweed and velvet and most of us don't have the hope of getting a sniff at them. Unless our dads were former alumnae, like George W Bush's.

Pat said...

Can't help I'm afraid. I have an untrained brain but did I married two academics. Not at the same time of course.

Pat said...

God ! I usually can write sense. That should read but I did marry two academics. Bedtime I think;)

Lulu LaBonne said...

Being 'grown up' or earning to be is one of those universal struggles that we all think everyone else has the hang of.

Lulu LaBonne said...

'learning to be (although earning ones grown-upness strikes me as appropriagte)

Kass said...

I wish some of my professors had cared to wonder about such things.

The veil of bewilderment is an excellent description of that fuzzy reality-altering scrim created by a variety of biases. I was so bewildered I ran away from home after the first quarter of college. It took me twenty years to finish.

Have you shared with your students your experience of bewilderment and tried to get them to discuss what they're going through?

I suppose the first step is to get the students to recognize their biases and to evaluate the evidence that supports their current beliefs. I have found this list by William S. Sahakian, Ph.D., the philosophy chair of Suffolk University, helpful when trying to pin down what your criteria for truth is:

CUSTOM - "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

TRADITION - What lasts for generations must be valid.

TIME - It stands the test of time.

FEELINGS - Let your emotions sway your decisions.

INSTINCT - Akin to feeling.

HUNCH - Impulsive generalization based on a vague or undefined notion.

INTUITION - Judgment without relying on facts. Unknown source.

REVELATION - Comes from God.

MAJORITY RULE - Statistical basis for acceptance of proposals.

CONSENSUS GENTIUM - General consent. Unanimous opinion of mankind. The world used to be flat.

NAIVE REALISM - Things are in reality as the senses depict them. To see is to believe.

CORRESPONDENCE - An idea corresponds to its objects. Suggests the need to provide a test that will disclose the precise degree of similarity between what we think and what actually exists. The White House is situated in Washington D.C.

AUTHORITY - The Opinions of highly trained individuals (two may disagree).

PRAGMATISM - If it works, it's true.

LOOSE CONSISTENCY - One proposition follows from another. "Snow is white."

RIGOROUS CONSISTENCY - Connections between statements that suggest one proposition necessarily follow another. "If all generals in the U.S. Army are also soldiers, and if John Doe is a general in the U.S. Army, then it follows necessarily that John Doe is a soldier."

COHERENCE - A systematic consistent explanation of all the facts of experience. All facts are explained and fit into the system as a relevant or integral part. Requires a standard of verification or test of truth. It includes reason, facts, system integration, relationships, consistency.

Way too much? I have more. This is a favorite area of mine.

rochambeau said...

Hello Eryl,
You made it through your own veil!!!
And I admire you greatly That is why you are such a great writer! You also have a edgy and funny side that shines through in all you present here.

This is what I would do with your class:
I would come in from left field with an off the wall lesson. Something like this: Hand your students a piece of paper, ask them to write four word or word combination's ie:

apple tart
beach bunny
Graffiti in the bathroom

Collect the papers and re hand out to students. They can't get back the words they wrote.

Let each student write a quick story or poem combining 4 thoughts.


Sit in a circle and Tell a story. Each person uses one of the words in there story, then it goes on to the next.

Who knows if any can inspire them or you?


Here is a Sugar Skull site:

nick said...

Can't help much there. Jenny has four degrees but I was an undergraduate drop-out so I guess I never managed to lift the veil. I suppose my questions would be: What is the point of this subject? How will it help me in the rest of my life? How will it help me to think and analyse and appreciate what's around me?

It nearly took your nose off? Oh, do tell....

NanU said...

The veil of bewilderment sounds quite like my physics and calculus classes. Can't see how I passed the exams. Decades later I seem to have made a hole in the veil, but it only peers into a very small area - the rest remains intact and opaque as ever.

Alina said...

Hello Eryl,

I got to your blog by accident, but found it interesting, so I thought I'd contribute with a couple of suggestions.

Your formulation was mostly metaphorical, so I'm not completely sure what the veil of bewilderment is caused by in the case of your students (or what caused it during your own student years). It may be due to the challenge of being at University, and starting a life phase which is very unlike what they've been used to so far (more freedom, but also the need for more responsibility and self-discipline). It may also be specifically connected with the subject you're teaching, which is probably new for them. Or it may be a combination of the two.

I guess the challenge for you is first and foremost to make it clear WHY textual analysis and critical thinking are worth 'learning' - other than because they need them as a foundation for further study - that's too abstract as a motivational tool. Try to show them what is intriguing and 'alive' about the subjects, and perhaps how they are connected with everyday life.

What I'm getting at is precisely what you mentioned at the start of your post: your students need to feel that university is neither an ivory tower for eccentric scientists nor something you simply have to go through to get a job, that it can be interesting and fun, and that 'it has a point' beyond sheer professional utility.

It would probably also help if, to begin with, the tasks you set them were not overly complex, without being too easy - just to encourage them, and give them the feeling that the work they need to do requires rigour, but is nevertheless manageable.

These are some very approximate ideas, as you can see, and mostly to do with the scientific side of things. Of course the reasons for the bewilderment may go much deeper, and have emotional roots, or be connected with the growth process they undergo at that age etc. They may also be of a more trivial nature, e.g. to do with teaching/learning methods or tasks they are not yet used to etc. But I'll stop speculating. You have more information...

I must admit I have never experienced that sense of bewilderment at University, though it did accompany me all through high-school. Later on I also noticed it in some of my own students. I taught at high-school level, however, not at University, so I don't know how much my suggestions apply in your case.

Anyway, this is getting far too long :-).

Carole said...

Veil of bewilderment is a great term. Never attended college because I was always talk a woman is to get married and be a good wife. Drat.

So I'm married and now haven't much of a desire to go to school as I think I would be more than rusty.

Frustrating that I didn't have better sense than to listen to my parents.

Eryl said...

Mary ~ things have changed now (thanks to what used to be called the 'red brick –ie new – universities' ), but when I was growing up universities here were pretty much all like American Ivy League ones: elitist institutions for members of the establishment and their families and allies. I remember being told it wasn't for me because only the top 2% went. I didn't think at the time to ask what they were the 'top' of.

Pat ~ your brain is like a wild horse: beautiful, powerful and free.

Lulu ~ you're so profound. I sometimes worry that I haven't yet earned enough to be!

Kass ~ thank you for this, I'm going to write it all down in my teacher's note pad. First though, I'm going to have a little lie down!

Anymore you want to share, throw it at me, I can take it.

Constance ~ thank you, I might just try something like this.

Thanks, also, for the sugar skulls site, will certainly take a good look at it.

Nick ~ next week we'll be about half way through the course, and I think I might just ask them what they think the point of it is.

I'm keeping my nose stories to myself, for now...

Nanu ~ physics and calculus! I can feel my veil turning to reinforced concrete at the very mention.

Alina ~ welcome, and thank you so much for taking the time to write so fully.

The veil, I think, is quite complex and comprises elements of all the things you've mentioned. In my case it was caused by choosing to study philosophy, with its often archaic use of language and totally (at the time to me) alien ideas and structure, after years as a mother, housewife and corporate lackey.

I get the impression that none of my students are used to questions that don't have concrete, black or white, answers. They're also not used to constructing their own arguments, taking a stance, or looking for, and using, authorities for support. Or taking responsibility for their own learning. They have also just begun and most are away from home for the first time, and trying to build new lives.

I think your are right: I need to simplify some things and make them more concrete. Thanks again!

Carole ~ a little rub down with some wire wool and oil will deal with that rust you know!

Anonymous said...

"textual analysis and critical thinking"
Yeah, history. Quellenanalyse and Quellenkritik - questions to the text. See Dilthey, Hermeneutischer Zirkel. Lamprecht. There are no methods, in itself an idea of the 19th century, there are only tools. The German "tradition" (what is besides historism!, the alternative) stops 1914 (Lamprecht dies 1915, Weber 1917) and the French take over, the generation of teachers for Les Annales, sociology is the new remedy. 1929 Les Annales. What grew through the 1920s in Germany (Kritische Schule, Frankfurter Schule etctetc) is forced into exile (Horkheimer, Adorno, Elias ! and a lot of others, otherwise silenced), meets anglosaxon pragmatism and takes root. Comes back to Europe only after 1968.
Just teach them to use their brains. What means to trust themselves. They need to understand the tools and that's nothing but the ability to think logically and the ability to understand words. Good luck.

Mark Sanderson said...

Teaching uni students? Blimey, that's a bit heavy going. Ever been tempted to tell the students you fancy to stay behind after class? No? Probably just me then.

red-handed said...

I think you turn it around. I think you ask questions. I think you say things like, "What are some good reasons for *not* learning this?"

Eryl said...

Mago ~ I haven't looked at Adorno for ages, I had such a crush on him for a while!

Thanks so much for your input here, it's made me think about my technique and slow down a little.

I was talking to a colleague today about this and he said: "ah, they've reached the pain barrier..."

Mark ~ I know your sort...

Red ~ that would be cruel!

Leni Qinan said...

Oh dear, the university years... in my case, the veil of bewilderment was thick and covered my brain for long years.

I was brilliant at school and got the best grades in my class to study medicine. I realised I would have been a disaster as a doctor, and 2 years after, the dark veil of bewilderment still blinding me, I gave up and registered at the Laws School. There I think I learnt how to use my brain, think, order my thoughts, have my own systems and independance. Sometimes it's a matter of maturity. Good luck with your students!

Eryl said...

Leni ~ you seem to have well and truly cast your veil off!

angryparsnip said...

So late with this...and a way too long comment, sorry.

After reading your post and all the interesting comments I got a call from Daughter.
Among all the thing we chatted about was,
I have a degree with several minors and not one has helped me find a job.
In America right out of high School you are expected to go to University or your a slacker, not living up to your potential blah blah blah.
All her adviser said was go to University you have the grades and tons of the required extra. In fact she had so many extra class she could have entered as a second year.
She said "I have a degree and I don't know what I want to do ?"
She just quit a job that was overwork with little pay.
So now it is look for a part time job ( hahahah in America right now ?) and possible go back to school, and do her art on the side.

I think the gap year would be an interesting idea but so many parents live to say " oh my child has been accepted to ..... " They are living vicarious through their child.
My X was so embarrassed and offended that Japanese son went to Junior Collage for a year first so he could decide what he wanted to do.
Now he is the one who has landed on a great path and ENJOYS what he is doing.
We all got in a mind set that we all have to go to University but what about Trade School ? Not everyone is likes to work in a office. We need welders, plumbers, mechanics and electricians

At Eighteen or nineteen Children are suppose to know what they want to do and I think that is why so many of the student you talk about walk around with confusion.

cheers, parsnip

Eryl said...

Parsnip ~ it's gone that way here, now, too: those who don't go to university are considered losers, and competitive parenting is rife. I do think culturally we put far too much pressure on kids to conform and choose far too early. Glad Japanese son held out against pressure from his father, and I do hope your daughter finds her way.

The Pollinatrix said...

Wow. There's a lot to respond to here. First, I have to say I love how this post reads like a fairy tale - you have an amazing gift for weaving words into enchantment.

It took me 13 years to finish my undergraduate degree, because I wasn't motivated. For me, college was just what you did after high school, but I had no real idea of what it was for, in any practical sense. I loved learning, but became disillusioned with some of my professors, and was easily distracted away from attending classes.

When I went back, it was as a more mature, focused adult, and I did very well. Then I went for a Master's and in many ways found that easier. I started teaching then too. The thing I've found in my now eight years of teaching is that what helps lift the veil for my students the most is when I can convey the material with passion and subtly (or not) weave in some sort of relevant and practical but spiritual life application. With English, that's fairly easy. It also helps that I try to reduce the student-teacher gap in various ways. I use examples from my own life to illustrate certain concepts, etc.

Eryl said...

Polli ~ thank you, very much, for this it helps hugely. I do try and convey to my students that I am no different to them. In fact the other day we were grappling with fallacies and I ended up banging my head on the table in frustration at trying to illustrate, in concrete terms, the fallacy of begging the question, without over simplifying it.
"If you can't do it no wonder we can't!" one of them said.
"Exactly," I responded, "this is difficult stuff." Luckily I managed to pull an example out of my memory that showed them how it is used, to what effect, and, thus, why they need to know it. I saw a few veils raise that day. The problem is they go down as fast as they go up.

But I'll keep on with this technique (if you can call it that) as one good thing I've noticed is that none of them is afraid to say anymore that they don't understand something.

Nice to hear from you, and I'm so glad you went back to college and got your degrees.

The Pollinatrix said...

Oooh, I love teaching logical fallacies! Traditionally I've used two articles about the movie Natural Born Killers. (Wait - I feel like I've told you this already. Well, if I have, sorry.)

Anyway, one of the articles is by John Grisham and it's about how horrible the movie is because it led to certain people copying the couple in the movie and going on killing sprees. The other article is a rebuttal by director Oliver Stone. Both articles are badly written (although both do contain good points) and full of logical fallacies, and it's incredibly fun to tear them apart as a class.

Eryl said...

Polli ~ I do have a vague recollection of you telling me this before, however I'm very glad to hear it again and will see if I can find the articles.

Alesa Warcan said...

I'd hate to litter such a serious post and its matching comments with silliness- Who am I kidding? It would be out of character for me not to!

Perhaps mushrooms are like the questions: they need moisture, heat, and a nutritive medium to thrive and multiply... They can be tasty but must be chosen with care as they can also be deadly.

Have you considered using a "please disrobe" sign at the entrance of your class? And so the students left their veils behind and much (awkward) hilarity and learning ensued.