• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


An Education Necessity: Mind Blowing Experiences

As we privilege standardization, more meaningful things are put at risk.

July 26, 2015

As the mania for measuring learning “outcomes” seems to continue unabated, primarily through standardized metrics, I’m wondering what kind of tool we can develop to quantify the number and impact of “mind blowing” moments.

I’m thinking about this because I was listening to the Wyatt Cenac episode of Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, and in Maron’s preview to the conversation, he talks about how sometimes in your life, you encounter people who “blow your mind.” It’s the part of his conversation with Cenac we are about to hear that has most stuck with him, a teaser to hook us in[1].

Maron is talking about people who cause you to suddenly see the world in a new and different way, who reveal something that was previously hidden, which now allows you to remake your self and your relationship with the world at large.

During the interview, Cenac shares his experience in an English class at the University of North Carolina with Professor Lee Greene, in Cenac’s words, “My favorite person at Carolina.”

Cenac and Maron engage in an exchange about having one’s mind blown (about 48:40 into the podcast):

Cenac: He was that guy…even in class, our class was English class, but he talked to us about art.

Maron: Right, he taught you how to think.

Cenac: Yes. Yeah…

Maron: And see things in that way…

Cenac: Yeah…

Maron: Where you’re like, holy shit, bigger world out there.

Cenac: Yeah, and he was more than the academic idea of a professor, he was just a man who was talking to all of us like adults, and he just happened to be the one adult that knew more than us.

Maron: And he was excited.

Cenac: Yeah.

Maron: Yeah, you need that guy, man where you’re like, ‘Oh, really, I never thought of that.’

The epiphany to which Cenac had been guided by Professor Greene was that Marvin Gaye’s classic album What’s Going On can be read as a concept album about a young man returning from Vietnam. Cenac was preparing a piece interpreting the lyrics of “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” for another class, and suddenly the lyric of a less than pleasurable drug high took on a whole new dimension.

This happened to Cenac twenty years ago and yet it’s somehow also present, something he carries moment to moment.

It seems to me that education offers many opportunities for mind blowing experiences, that is as long as we take care to value having our minds blown, if we don’t stamp it out in our quest for measurement.

I can remember several mind blowing moments from my undergraduate and graduate studies.

Reading David Foster Wallace’s first story collection, “Girl with Curious Hair” in my dorm room over Labor Day weekend freshman year.

An art history class discussing how Michelangelo sculpted his “David” in a way that would make him look  proportional when viewed from below.

Having been assigned it in class, the first time I read Raymond Carver’s “A Small Good Thing,” and surprised myself by bursting into tears.

Suspecting (but being afraid to admit to myself) the moment I met my future wife that we’d be spending the rest of our lives together.

Seeing my poetry professor John Wood move himself to tears reciting poetry from memory.

My friend Nick handing me a copy of Donald Barthelme’s story “The School,” and telling me I had to read it.

I do not know how many of these mind blowing moments and the many others I could list are directly attributable to the formal, designed aspects of my “education,” and yet all of them happened in the context of the times I was actively engaged in being educated.

Perhaps they are accidental, but if so, they seem awfully common. Just about any person lucky enough to be in these places of education living among other students and working with educators can testify to having their minds blown, to experiencing the recognition of “Holy shit, bigger world out there.[2]

Now, as a teacher, it is my students who often blow my mind. It is a student who in a single, well-argued paper turned me around on the artistic seriousness of fan fiction, convincing me that it was worthy of study as something other than a cultural curio.

It is a student who woke me up to the fundamental cruelty of SeaWorld, well before Blackfish was released. It is a student who introduced me to the from of discrimination known as “colorism.” It is a student who caused me to see the subtle ways that popular media and commercial television undermine the legitimacy of bisexuality.

The list of times students have blown my mind is probably longer than the number of times my mind was blown by professors or friends or colleagues.

In no way was I in search of these epiphanies when I assigned the work that led to them[3], and yet, they happened.

Like a lot of people, I remember very little of the knowledge and information that I supposedly learned in college, and I’ve even forgotten the specifics of some of the times my mind was blown.

But I retain the feeling of those moments, an emotional talisman that reminds me: Holy shit, bigger world out there. I’m not sure I could live a contented life without those realizations, without the recognition that my world can be remade in new and interesting ways, and that I too can shape the worlds of others.

When we become obsessed with measurement, with coherence, with standardization, we inevitably reduce the experience to those things that can be measured, and often those things are small, and not particularly meaningful when it comes to a life lived[4].

Think about the compromises we must make for the sake of assessment, assignments that are safe, that require students to make the moves we can measure and quantify, but which also come with low probability of mind blowing.

Is coherence fun? Is it stimulating? Is it necessary? How have generations of graduates survived thus far without coherence[5]?

My hope is that I have blown a few minds, or that I have at least created the conditions suitable to students blowing their own minds.

I cannot measure this, but I believe it happens.

Who has blown your mind?

[1] This seems notable because this is the WTF episode that gained notoriety because Cenac discusses his difficult relationship with Jon Stewart when he was a writer and performer on The Daily Show.

[2] This is not to say having your mind blown is exclusive to education, just that it’s a rich atmosphere for such occurrences. I also believe that the experiences of having your mind blown as part of your education likely makes you more alert to possible mind blowing experiences once you’re done with formal schooling.

[3] Our learning goals for this assignment will be to BLOW YOUR INSTRUCTOR’S MIND! READY? GO!

[4] As we consider the possible impact of proposed reforms to education (at any level), I think we must do this at the level of our values. For example, which is more important, every class covering the same material, or increasing the chances of individual students having their minds blown? (Presuming these values are in conflict, which I believe them to be.

[5] This is not to say that incoherence is somehow desirable, just that privileging coherence is likely to come with significant negative consequences.


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