Tag Archives: prestige

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It’s one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it’s completely fallacious, it’s still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”


Intervention médiatique helvético-québécoise

Un peu la suite (tardive) d’un billet sur la «vitalité culturelle du Québec» (qui était lui-même une suite d’un billet sur le contenu québécois), avec des liens à deux baladodiffusions: David Patry (du syndicat du Journal de Montréal) en entrevue sur Musironie et Jean-François Rioux (directeur radio à RadCan) en entrevue sur Médialogues.

Un peu plus de contexte que vous n’en désirez… 🙂

J’écoute de nombreuses baladodiffusions, en français et en anglais. En tant qu’ethnographe et en tant que  bavard invétéré, j’essaie  d’apporter mon grain de sel dans diverses conversations. Certaines baladodiffusions (entre autres celles qui proviennent du contexte radiophonique traditionnel, comme Médialogues) «donnent la parole aux auditeurs» en sollicitant des messages téléphoniques ou par courriel. Une participation beaucoup moins directe ou égalitaire que dans le média social, mais une participation sociale tout de même.

En tant que Québécois d’origine suisse, je me plais à écouter des baladodiffusions helvétiques (provenant surtout de la radio publique en Suisse-Romande, la baladodiffusion indépendante étant encore plus rare en Suisse qu’au Québec). Ça m’aide à conserver un contact avec la Suisse, ne serait-ce que par l’accent des participants. Et ça me fait parfois réfléchir aux différences entre la Suisse et le Québec (ou, par extension, aux différences entre Amérique du Nord et Europe).

J’écoute des baladodiffusions de Couleur3 et de «La première» (deux stations radiophoniques de la SRG SSR idée suisse) depuis 2005. Mais ce n’est qu’en écoutant un épisode de la baladodiffusion de Vous êtes ici de Radio-Canada, l’été dernier que j’ai appris l’existence de Médialogues, une émission de La première au sujet des médias. 

Puisque je suis en réaction contre le journalisme depuis 25 ans, la critique des médias me fascine. Médialogues n’est pas, en tant que telle, représentative de l’analyse critique des médias (elle est animée par des journalistes et les journalistes peinent à utiliser un point de vue critique sur le journalisme). Mais plusieurs interventions au cours de l’émission sont effectuées par des gens (y compris d’anciens journalistes comme Christophe Hans) dotés du recul nécessaire pour comprendre le journalisme dans son ensemble et certains journalistes qui participent à l’émission énoncent à l’occasion des idées qui peuvent être utiles à l’analyse critique du journalisme.

Soit dit en passant, au sujet du respect… Je respecte qui que ce soit, y compris ceux avec qui je suis en désaccord profond. Je peux parfois sembler irrespectueux à l’égard des journalistes mais ce n’est pas contre eux que «j’en ai». Je suis en réaction contre le journalisme mais j’apprécie les journalistes en tant que personnes. Par ailleurs, je considère que beaucoup de journalistes sont eux-mêmes irrespectueux à l’égard des non-journalistes et leur manque de respect à notre égard provoque parfois en moi certaines réactions qui peuvent ressembler à des «attaques» plus personnalisées. Mon intention est toute autre, bien évidemment, mais je prends la responsabilité pour toute méprise à ce sujet. J’ai d’ailleurs été confronté à ce genre de situation, il y a quelques mois.

Revenons donc à Jean-François Rioux, en entrevue avec les journalistes de Médialogues.

Le contexte immédiat de cette entrevue est relativement simple à comprendre: la Société Suisse Romande (portion francophone de la SRG SSR idée suisse) procède en ce moment à la fusion de ses services télévisuels, radiophoniques et Internet. C’est donc un sujet qui anime et passionne l’équipe de Médialogues (située au cœur de cette transformation). La semaine dernière, intriguée par des propos de Gérard Delaloye, (dont les interventions ont été entendues à plusieurs reprises pendant la semaine), l’équipe de Médialogues s’est penchée sur la crainte toute journalistique de la perte de diversité causée par cette fusion de diverses sections du service public. N’étant pas en mesure de contacter le directeur télévision et radio (déjà sollicité à plusieurs reprises par Médialogues, à ce que j’ai pu comprendre), l’équipe de journalistes a décidé de contacter Jean-François Rioux. Choix très logique puisque la SRC est l’équivalent très direct de la SSR (y compris la distinction linguistique) et que CBC/SRC a déjà procédé à cette fusion des médias.

Rioux était donc invité à se prononcer au sujet des effets de la fusion des moyens de communication. Là où tout prend son sens, c’est que l’équipe de Médialogues utilise le terme «convergence» pour parler de cette fusion. Ce terme est tout à fait approprié puisqu’il s’agit d’un exemple de ce qu’on appelle «la convergence numérique». Mais, en contexte canadien (et, qui plus est, québécois), le terme «convergence» est fortement connoté puisqu’il a surtout été utilisé pour désigner ce qu’on appelle «la convergence des médias»: une portion de la concentration des médias qui traite plus spécifiquement de l’existence de plusieurs organes médiatiques «multi-plateforme» au sein d’une même organisation médiatique. Contrairement à ce que certains pourraient croire (et que je me tue à dire, en tant qu’ethnolinguiste), c’est pas le terme lui-même, qui pose problème. C’est l’utilisation du terme en contexte. En parlant au directeur radio de RadCan, il est bon de connaître le contexte médiatique québécois, y compris une aversion pour la convergence des médias.

En tant qu’ethnolinguiste helvético-québécois, il était de mon devoir d’indiquer à l’équipe de Médialogues qu’une partie de cette entrevue avec Rioux était tributaire d’une acception proprement québécoise du concept de «convergence». J’ai donc envoyé un courriel à cette époque, n’étant alors pas en mesure de laisser un message sur leur boîte vocale (j’étais dans un lobby d’hôtel en préparation à une visite ethnographique).

Alors que je suis chez un ami à Québec (pour d’autres visites ethnographiques), je reçois un courriel d’Alain Maillard (un des journalistes de Médialogues) s’enquérant de mes dispositions face à une entrevue téléphonique au cours des prochains jours. Je lui ai rapidement indiqué mes disponibilités et, ce matin, je reçois un autre courriel de sa part me demandant si je serais disponible dans la prochaine heure. Le moment était tout à fait opportun et nous avons pu procéder à une petite entrevue téléphonique, de 9:58 à 10:18 (heure normale de l’est).

Malheureusement, j’ai pas eu la présence d’esprit de procéder à l’enregistrement de cette entrevue. Sur Skype, ç’aurait été plus facile à faire. Compte tenu de mon opinion sur le journalisme, évidemment, mais aussi de ma passion pour le son, j’accorde une certaine importance à l’enregistrement de ce type d’entrevue.


Donc, Maillard et moi avons pu parler pendant une vingtaine de minutes. L’entrevue était proprement structurée (on parle quand même de la Suisse et, qui plus est, d’un journaliste et auteur œuvrant en Suisse). Une section portait directement sur la notion de convergence. Selon Maillard, celle-ci pourrait faire l’objet d’une diffusion de deux minutes au début de l’émission de vendredi. La seconde section portait sur mon blogue principal et se concentrait sur l’importance de bloguer dans un contexte plutôt carriériste. La troisième section portant sur un de mes «chevaux de bataille»: la musique et les modèles d’affaires désuets qui la touchent. Comme beaucoup d’autres, Maillard s’interrogeait sur les montants d’argent associés à certains produits de la musique: les enregistrement et les spectacles. Pour Maillard, comme pour beaucoup de non-musiciens (y compris les patrons de l’industrie du disque), il semble que ce soit l’accès à la musique qui se doit d’être payant. Malgré les changements importants survenus dans cette sphère d’activité para-musicale depuis la fin du siècle dernier, plusieurs semblent encore croire que La Musique est équivalente aux produits de consommations (“commodities”) qui lui sont associés. La logique utilisée semble être la suivante: si les gens peuvent «télécharger de la musique» gratuitement, comment «la musique» peut-elle survivre?  Pourtant, ce n’est pas «de la musique» qui est téléchargée, ce sont des fichiers (généralement en format MP3) qui proviennent de l’enregistrement de certaines performances musicales.

L’analogie avec des fichiers JPEG est un peu facile (et partiellement inadéquate, puisqu’elle force une notion technique sur la question) mais elle semble somme toute assez utile. Un fichier JPEG provenant d’une œuvre d’art pictural (disons, une reproduction photographique d’une peinture) n’est pas cette œuvre. Elle en est la «trace», soit. On peut même procéder à une analyse sémiotique détaillée du lien entre ce fichier et cette œuvre. Mais il est facile de comprendre que le fichier JPEG n’est pas directement équivalent à cette œuvre, que l’utilisation du fichier JPEG est distincte de (quoiqu’indirectement liée à) la démarche esthétique liée à une œuvre d’art.

On pourrait appliquer la même logique à une captation vidéo d’une performance de danse ou de théâtre.

J’ai beaucoup de choses à dire à ce sujet, ce qui est assez «dangereux». D’ailleurs, je parle peu de ces questions ici, sur mon blogue principal, parce que c’était surtout mon cheval de bataille sur le blogue que j’ai créé pour Critical World, il y a quelques temps.

Comme vous vous en êtes sûrement rendu compte, chères lectrices et chers lecteurs, je suis parti d’un sujet somme toute banal (une courte entrevue pour une émission de radio) et je suis parti dans tous les sens. C’est d’ailleurs quelque-chose que j’aime bien faire sur mon blogue, même si c’est mal considéré (surtout par les Anglophones). C’est plutôt un flot d’idées qu’un billet sur un sujet précis. Se trouvent ici plusieurs idées en germe que je souhaite aborder de nouveau à une date ultérieure. Par exemple, je pensais dernièrement à écrire un billet spécifiquement au sujet de Médialogues, avec quelques commentaires sur la transformation des médias (la crise du journalisme, par exemple). Mais je crois que c’est plus efficace pour moi de faire ce petit brouillon.

D’ailleurs, ça m’aide à effectuer mon «retour de terrain» après mes premières visites ethnographiques effectuées pour l’entreprise privée.

Student Engagement: The Gym Analogy (Updated: Credited)

Heard about this recently and probably heard it before. It’s striking me more now than before, for some reason.

[Update: I heard about this analogy through Peace Studies scholar Laurie Lamoureux Scholes (part-time faculty and doctoral candidate in Religion at Concordia University). Lamoureux Scholes’s colleague John Bilodeau is the intermediate source for this analogy and may have seen it on the RateYourStudents blog. There’s nothing like giving credit where credit is due and I’m enough of a folklorist to care about transmission. Besides, the original RYS gym-themed blog entry can be quite useful.]

Those of us who teach at universities and colleges (especially in North America and especially among English-speakers, I would guess) have encountered this “sense of entitlement” which has such deep implications in the ways some students perceive learning. Some students feel and say that, since they (or their parents) pay large sums for their post-secondary education, they are entitled to a “special treatment” which often involves the idea of getting high grades with little effort.

In my experience, this sense of entitlement correlates positively with the prestige of the institution. Part of this has to do with tuition fees required by those universities and colleges. But there’s also the notion that, since they were admitted to a program at such a selective school, they must be the “cream of the crop” and therefore should be treated with deference. Similarly, “traditional students” (18-25) are in my experience more likely to display a sense of entitlement than “non-traditional students” (older than 25) who have very specific reasons to attend a college or university.

The main statements used by students in relation to their sense of entitlement usually have some connection to tuition fees perceived to transform teaching into a hired service, regardless of other factors. “My parents pay a lot of money for your salary so I’m allowed to get what I want.” (Of course, those students may not realize that a tiny fraction of tuition fees actually goes in the pocket of the instructor, but that’s another story.) In some cases, the parents can easily afford that amount paid in tuitions but the statements are the same. In other cases, the statements come from the notion that parents have “worked very hard to put me in school.” The results, in terms of entitlement, are quite similar.

Simply put, those students who feel a strong sense of entitlement tend to “be there for the degree” while most other students are “there to learn.”

Personally, I tend to assume students want to learn and I value student engagement in learning processes very highly. As a result, I often have a harder time working with students with a sense of entitlement. I can adapt myself to work with them if I assess their positions early on (preferably, before the beginning of a semester) but it requires a good deal of effort for me to teach in a context in which the sense of entitlement is “endemic.” In other words, “I can handle a few entitled students” if I know in advance what to expect but I find it demotivating to teach a group of students who “are only there for the degree.”

A large part of my own position has to do with the types of courses I have been teaching (anthropology, folkloristics, and sociology) and my teaching philosophy also “gets in the way.” My main goal is a constructivist one: create an appropriate environment, with students, in which learning can happen efficiently. I’m rarely (if ever) trying to “cram ideas into students’ heads,” though I do understand the value of that type of teaching in some circumstances. I occasionally try to train students for a task but my courses have rarely been meant to be vocational in that sense (I could certainly do vocational training, in which case I would adapt my methods).

So, the gym analogy. At this point, I find it’s quite fitting as an answer to the “my parents paid for this course so I should get a high grade.”

Tuition fees are similar to gym membership: regardless of the amount you pay, you can only expect results if you make the effort.

Simple and effective.

Of course, no analogy is perfect. I think the “effort” emphasis is more fitting in physical training than in intellectual and conceptual training. But, thankfully, the analogy does not imply that students should “get grades for effort” more than athletes assume effort is sufficient to improve their physical skills.

One thing I like about this analogy is that it can easily resonate with a large category of students who are, in fact, the “gym type.” Sounds irrelevant but the analogy is precisely the type of thing which might stick in the head of those students who care about physical training (even if they react negatively at first) and many “entitled students” have a near Greek/German attitude toward their bodies. In fact, some of the students with the strongest sense of entitlement are high-profile athletes: some of them sound like they expect to have minions to take exams for them!

An important advantage of the gym analogy, in a North American context, is that it focuses on individual responsibility. While not always selfish, the sense of entitlement is self-centred by definition. Given the North American tendency toward independence training and a strong focus on individual achievement in North American academic institutions, the “individualist” character of the sense of entitlement shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, those “entitled students” are unlikely to respond very positively to notions of solidarity, group learning, or even “team effort.”

Beyond individual responsibility, the gym analogy can help emphasise individual goals, especially in comparison to team sports. In North America, team sports play a very significant role in popular culture and the distinction between a gym and a sports team can resonate in a large conceptual field. The gym is the locale for individual achievement while the sports team (which could be the basis of another analogy) is focused on group achievement.

My simplest definition of a team is as “a task-oriented group.” Some models of group development (especially Tuckman’s catchy “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing“) are best suited in relation to teams. Task-based groups connect directly with the Calvinistic ideology of progress (in a Weberian perspective), but they also embed a “community-building” notion which is often absent from the “social Darwinism” of some capital-driven discourse. In other words, a team sports analogy could have some of the same advantages as the gym analogy (such as a sense of active engagement) with the added benefit of bringing into focus the social aspects of learning.

Teamwork skills are highly valued in the North American workplace. In learning contexts, “teamwork” often takes a buzzword quality. The implicit notion seems to be that the natural tendency for individuals to work against everybody else but that teams, as unnatural as they may seem, are necessary for the survival of broad institutions (such as the typical workplace). In other words, “learning how to work well in teams” sounds like a struggle against “human nature.” This implicit perspective relates to the emphasis on “individual achievement” and “independence training” represented effectively in the gym analogy.

So, to come back to that gym analogy…

In a gym, everyone is expected to set her or his own goals, often with the advice of a trainer. The notion is that this selection of goals is completely free of outside influence save for “natural” goals related to general health. In this context, losing weight is an obvious goal (the correlation between body mass and health being taken as a given) but it is still chosen by the individual. “You can only succeed if you set yourself to succeed” seems to be a common way to put it. Since this conception is “inscribed in the mind” of some students, it may be a convenient tool to emphasise learning strategies: “you can only learn if you set yourself to learn.” Sounds overly simple, but it may well work. Especially if we move beyond the idea some students have that they’re so “smart” that they “don’t need to learn.”

What it can imply in terms of teaching is quite interesting. An instructor takes on the role of a personal trainer. Like a sports team’s coach, a trainer is “listened to” and “obeyed.” There might be a notion of hierarchy involved (at least in terms of skills: the trainer needs to impress), but the main notion is that of division of labour. Personally, I could readily see myself taking on the “personal trainer” role in a learning context, despite the disadvantages of customer-based approaches to learning. One benefit of the trainer role is that what students (or their parents) pay for is a service, not “learning as a commodity.”

Much of this reminds me of Alex Golub’s blogpost on “Factory, Lab, Guild, Studio” notions to be used in describing academic departments. Using Golub’s blogpost as inspiration, I blogged about departments, Samba schools, and the Medici Effect. In the meantime, my understanding of learning has deepened but still follows similar lines. And I still love the “Samba school” concept. I can now add the gym and the sports teams to my analogical apparatus to use in describing my teaching to students or anybody else.

Hopefully, any of these analogies can be used to help students engage themselves in the learning process.

That’s all I can wish for.