Corrupting Rationality: Exposing Emotions in Our Language

alesnick's picture

 Margo Schall

This essay, which is written with emotion, talks about employing emotion in education - a step which needs to be done in order to improve teaching and learning. 



Passion, Care, Fascination.
Fear, Vulnerability, Reliance.
Embarrassment, Shame.
These are not academic words.
Our educational lives and our emotional lives are divided.
In school we learn. What does it matter how we feel about the things we learn?
So many times have I gotten papers back with the comment –
“you seem passionate, but you need concrete evidence,” “a much tighter structure… stricter proof!”
Or heard - “probably it’s better not to bring personal experiences or anything too emotional into the discussion; it’ll detract from the productiveness.”
I get what you’re telling me. I get it.
Less emotion. More proof.
But that strategy no longer works.
It doesn’t work in a mentoring relationship, in a mentoring relationship that exists only insofar as we create it. We can’t not care; that would mean no interaction, no learning.
In a situation where there’s no curriculum until we create it, we can’t fall back on the formal customs of academia, where rigor is out the window to be replaced by baking and building, where we don’t have prescribed textbooks full of factual material to memorize that will occupy and distract our minds, where we have to find new ways of interacting.
And that ‘s scary. We have to care about what we’re doing and about each other.
In our ELP there have been so many scary, powerful, joyful emotional circumstances
When Michael went out of his way before work to go to pick-up the bananas we needed to bake with, because although he didn’t simply have them laying around at home, he had promised us he’d bring them. And he didn’t let us down.
            When Alan devoted extra time during the week to do more work on the walls we had built, to make sure they were sturdy, even though we’re only going to take it down again. Even though he didn’t owe us his extra time by any means.
            Every time they choose patience over condescension. Even when Michael knows seventeen times more about what we’re “teaching” them that we do.
When they ask us about our lives with genuinely open ears. And remember what we say even three weeks later.
            And when they’re willing to talk about their own, and put themselves on the line, even though they have no way to know how we will respond, if we will be supportive of or understand their experiences
            That they, as adults with stable careers, are willing to participate in a reciprocal relationship with college students.
It feels like we’re asking for change. For a chance to teach and learn something that we might not know otherwise, because as Peter explains, he’d want his kids to know this too. But mostly, for a chance to share worlds that neither of us would have the chance to share otherwise.
To be changed ourselves, to be transformed, to be revolutionary, we need to change our emotions.
What has changed is not my academic or rational knowledge, but my feelings and attitudes towards my fellow TLI participants.
Relationships, not facts, are what make-up our world.
What we choose to do is driven by what we feel and care about, not by abstract mental concepts.
My ELP has made me realize that you can’t mentor, and can’t participate in transformative education in any real way either really, unless emotions are involved.
It does matter how I feel about the things I learn. This always true, but becomes particularly evident in a mentoring situation where the things or objects of learning take backstage and the relationship itself becomes the learning experience to a large degree.
You cannot be part of this and not feel something about it. That’s just not possible.
Mentoring is People are teaching People.
Teaching what’s closest to us and our lives
It’s what we do for a living, or for life.
It’s not merely a topic, not textbook facts, detached and isolated.
So much more is AT STAKE but so much more can be CREATED
Passion, Care, Fascination.
Fear, Vulnerability, Reliance.
Embarrassment, Shame.
These are not academic words?
            ….An Appeal to Your Emotions
and A More “Rational” Discussion of Emotions and Education…
Corrupting Rationality: Exposing Emotions in Our Language
Conventional education in the United States today, especially under the mandate of No Child Left Behind, condemns emotion. Because of the epistemological foundations of education in the Western world, today we find ourselves “succumbing to our ‘Cartesian anxiety,’ our fear of uncertainty and instability that compels us to trust technical methods and standards more than people” (Shank 228). In the quest for absolute truths, we steer precipitously away from matters of “the hand or the heart” (Shank 219). In doing so, we sacrifice an essential part of our being. We bifurcate our “lifeworld” experiences into rational, solid matters of the mind and irrational, petty matters of the heart; the prior holds value, the latter is intellectually disregarded (Herman and Mandell 25). Good education, then, is “a systematic method for attaining certainty,” achieved through “control of passion and subjectivity” and free from “the influences of the senses and imagination” (Shank 219, 220). Good education is still evaluated by many of the same criteria. Passion corrupts the soundness of an argument. Or so the truism goes.
Why the split?
Why would Descartes, and his descendents for four hundred years afterwards, adhere to this perception of the “real,” rational world as separate from the emotional, physical and experiential world? Education searches for dependable truths because there is safety in establishing truth, and to some degree there’s necessity in having established truths. They are the dependable guideline or “systems” on which we can fall back as default modes of existence (Herman and Mandell 24). Our sense of objectivity provides a basic stability to our lives. But stability can also be limiting. For instance, despite the wealth of kitchen space on Bryn Mawr’s campus, none of them were immediately available for our TLI cooking. Because of the established roles of space on campus, there was literally no space on campus designated for what we wanted to do. When Batton House opened up their kitchen for us though, we were able to make use of an otherwise vacant space, and meet otherwise strangers. Michael, Thad and Peter were able to use this space in a new way; where Peter had recently installed a new dishwasher he was now cooking. There was one strict, stable role about space that had been lifted, or shifted.
The underside of this stability is fear. We live our lives according to what we consider habitual, normal and true. We find having to reevaluate our lifestyles when seemingly objective truths change unsettling at best. Why are the roles and functions of space so segregated, for example, when any kitchen would serve our purpose just fine?
This fear is especially evident in the Teaching Learning Initiative, which grounds itself in the abovementioned reevaluation and change. The TLI “deliberately challenges the traditionally rigid role structure in which expertise is understood in exclusively hierarchical terms” (TLI website http://www.brynmawr. edu/tli/). In a movement to democratize access on Bryn Mawr’s campus, the TLI works to, yes, corrupt engrained conceptions of hierarchical boundaries. To be a participant in the TLI, we must be able to stand beside the learner and see her goal, from her perspective. We must be able to abandon our preconceptions and change our ideas. Often, this shifting feels threatening. As a faculty participant quoted though, “you can either be isolated and safe, or vulnerable and connected” (TLI website http://www.brynmawr. edu/tli/).
Despite our fear of and resistance to acknowledging the influence of emotions on our ideological “certainties,” the language we use in our discussion of education and mentoring shows an implicit, sometimes circumvented, consideration of emotional factors. In students’ entries in the Empowering Learners Handbook, subjective and passionate language emerges that transcends and complicates rational assurance. For instance, the word “fear” arises in relation to the stigma surrounding art education (Garcia, Empowering Learners Handbook). Developing ways to “praise” students is used in both Lim Xuan-Shi’s chapter. Susanna Farahat focuses on how to discuss “sensitive subjects” - topics that make us feel uncomfortable or afraid, while Becky Strattan emphasizes importance of “positive assumptions” like Haverford’s motto - “trust, concern and respect” (Empowering Learners Handbook). Heather Davis, in her chapter “the Complicated Reality of Emotions, Identity and Emergent Learning,” discusses experiences of being “offended,” “sheepish” and challenged when “there is obviously no one right answer” (Empowering Learners Handbook).  
 What becomes clear, then, is how pervasively issues in the emotional and extra-rational realm, such as fear, care, excitement, uncertainty and insecurity underlie mentoring relationships in the TLI. How we feel matters in education, in the TLI, and in how both of these things affect our broader lives. And how we treat those feelings matters. Direct recognition of this underlying emotional content, however, rarely extends beyond peripheral allusions.
So emotions exist in our TLI experiences. Who cares?
Our resistance to adapting our ways of life indicates our loyalty to certain modes of existence. Not only do our conceptions of truth frame our ideas of good and bad and what we care about, but the opposite is also true - what we care about informs what we think of as true. We avoid emotions so as to not sully our argument, but we forget that our emotions and experiences shape our ideas whether or not we explicitly address them.For instance educational philosopher Paulo Freire notes the implicit prejudice and subjectivity that we often overlook in seemingly innocuous statements, such as “the government ought to invest in those places where the taxpayers live,” or “do you know to whom you are talking?” (Freire 119). The apparent rationality of these two comments is in fact laced with value judgments and assumptions of hierarchy. Our conceptions of truth are loaded with acquired bias and emotional bases. Our truths cannot be taken for granted or as absolute.
Emotion and experience, or lack thereof, inform our ideas about what is true in the world. In some instances, as Shank argues in her feminist analysis of the academic principle of “rigor,” the ability to construct a divide between the mental and physical realms is a privilege more readily available to the Western “man of reason” whose identity has been constructed as central, displacing “others into the periphery” (Shank 228). The autonomous man can ignore the matters of the “heart and the hand” in a way that people of color, “women and laboring men,” whose identities cannot be hidden in their everyday experiences, are not able to (Shank 228) Education cannot be neutral. A student or teacher’s feelings about a subject necessarily influences her academic ideas and discussion about it. Freire questions, recognizing the privilege inherent in emotionless neutrality, “what is my neutrality, if not a comfortable and perhaps hypocritical way of avoiding any choice or even hiding my fear of denouncing injustice” (101).
            What surprised me most about the TLI was how fundamental the relationship itself is, even more than the curricular material. Ultimately what I take away from each meeting, what has a lasting impression on me, is the feeling that I walk out with – motivation, energy. What has changed is not my academic or rational knowledge as much as my feelings and attitudes towards my fellow TLI participants.
I would never have anticipated this. So accustomed to and trained in the ways of conventional education, what excited me about the TLI when I first heard about it was the potential to learn something new. And I have learned about electricity, plumbing, HVAC, construction and power tools, all of which have been incredibly. But more enlightening has been learning from Michael, Peter and Thad what it is like for them to be a plumber or an electrician – what experiences come along with that. That is truly new knowledge for me, because it changes how I perceive. It make me not just know the world more, but also know the world differently. (Brent, Luce-Kapler and Sumera).
This chapter openly embraces the underlying emotional component inherent in both the TLI specifically and education more generally
Works Cited
Davis, Brent, Luce-Kapler, Rebecca and Sumara, Dennis. Engaging Minds. New York, NY. Routledge: 2008.
Empowering Learners: A Handbook for the Theory and Practice of Extra-Classroom Teaching.Serendip.2005.
Herman, Lee and Mandell, Alan. From Teaching to Mentoring. New York, NY. Routledge: 2004.
TLI website. Bryn Mawr College, 2009.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Shank, Melody. Striving for Educational Rigor. Acceptance of Masculine Privilege. Sage Publications, Inc. 



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