Balancing Acts

Amy L. Wink writes that when professors learn new things in the summer, they become better teachers in the fall.

June 6, 2006

"We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way."
                                                --John Holt

In the grocery store early one summer morning, I ran into a former colleague, recently tenured, from a university where I'd just concluded a part-time stint. She said my full name in a shocked, you're-out-of-context way, probably additionally surprised, I suspect, because she never thought she'd see this departed adjunct again. Over the yogurt section, she inquired about my summer plans. I blathered happily about learning yoga, and learning to ride horses, about being active. I didn't realize until she darted away that I hadn't mentioned "work." I focused on summer not as a time for buckling down to complete projects I had to do, or had to work to avoid doing, but as a time for balancing out the exertions of the rest of the academic year with play.

I had probably broken some Cardinal Rule regarding academic toil, not only by not bringing it up, but also by not announcing how productive I intended on being in the "free" time that non-academics so enviously resent. Although not a tenure seeker, I was working on a book project, and also teaching a summer class. My focus, however, was far different than the rigorous schedules most academic writers establish during the free time of summer. That summer, I had released myself from the grip of perpetual scholarly labor and its accompanying dread, and began to train myself in a different way. My activities were, as it turned out, an excellent way to increase my own creative production and rejuvenate my teaching, because instead being learned, I was learning. I was reacquainting myself with the very important process instead of looking solely at its end product.

Amusingly, my activities of choice also enforced the key concepts I was seeking in my professional life. In yoga, I developed flexibility and balance as I learned new ways of moving my body. On horseback, I had to learn the same things, all the while dealing with another being who had his own ideas. In both areas, I was also learning a very important lesson in being a rank beginner. I could make mistakes. In fact, making mistakes was a requirement. Only by comparing "not right" with the "right" could I sense the correct positions in either situation.

Finding balance requires knowing where balance is not. Standing in Tree pose, one foot off the ground, requires subtle positioning until that balancing center settles on the right place. Balancing on a moving horse's back requires sinking into the motion, releasing tightened muscles to move with, not against, the animal's own balance. In fact, to stop a horse from moving forward, you simply stop moving with him.

My lessons of choice that summer also developed a very different part of my learning repertoire. Like most academics, I am an extremely skilled learner of information. I regularly learn by reading and interpreting text without much difficulty. Although I may not fully understand a concept, I can read and think until I gain understanding. My brain is extremely practiced at that kind of learning. What my brain is not practiced at is physical learning.

As I watched my yoga instructor demonstrate new positions like Pigeon or Side Plank, I found myself hopelessly confused, because I am not great at visual learning. But I also found a great sense of triumph when I did manage to get the position right. While adept at challenging theoretical concepts and mental gymnastics, I had to work hard to learn to do more than one body movement at a time. When my riding instructor explained how to turn my horse by turning my head in the direction I wished to turn, tightening my inside leg, and holding  my outside rein while leading with the inside rein, I felt just like her 7-year old daughter who said, at the same moment in her own lesson,  "That's a lot at the same time." Yes, yes, my 40-year-old self completely agreed.

The complexity of these new endeavors is, however, what makes them enjoyable as well as significant to creative insight and production. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has shown in his research on creativity and optimum experience, complexity is a necessary component for complete engagement. Learning something overly simple would also not have the same benefit. Moving on from accomplishment to accomplishment with ease is probably familiar to most people in higher education who have, in one way or another, spent a life in learning.

We are a people who enjoy learning, who know how to learn, and who are generally exceptional at doing what we know how to do. We are practiced learners but engaging in learning differently is something for which we do not often have time or inclination. Starting something new, learning from the very beginning, delving into areas in which we will prove ourselves to be unknowledgeable or clumsy also challenges the very definition of learned.

During the academic year, we all spend our time juggling teaching, writing, researching, and doing countless other academic chores. We focus on each task as it comes into view and we work to keep all the activities moving smoothly. But juggling is not balancing. Summer is the time for balancing. During the summer we can set down a few things and refocus our attention. By learning new things, we shift our perspective from imparting knowledge to gaining it.

By continuing the process of our own learning, we engage the balance we need to continue teaching effectively. By being learners, we can re-familiarize ourselves with how students come to the classroom and remember what it may be like to start from scratch, to be poor at something, and to gain gradually the understanding and insight that signals real learning. In our own recreation, we can begin to re-create the experiences of learning we establish in our classrooms.

The chasm between professor and student gapes widest in the oft-repeated complaints about students not already knowing what the professors have to teach. In an environment filled with people of exceptional insight, it is easy to forget what once we didn't know. It is easy to forget that at the outset of learning, not knowing is required. The challenges of learning differently ourselves brings us closer to bridging this chasm, to connecting with all the students, not just those exceptional few who have also learned to be good at learning exactly what we have to teach.

Recently, I had my first lesson in sculling, my summer activity of choice this year. What looks so smooth and effortless from the shore turns out to be a complex series of physical movements in concert with water, wind, and shell. My young instructor kept repeating things like "It's OK if this doesn't work right away. It takes a long time to learn this. Don't worry if you don't get this right away. This takes practice." I appreciated his assurances and recognized the good teacher in him.

As I struggled to get all the movements correct, my ignorance and clumsiness hung about me. But the risks were small, an oar out of water, a dunking in the lake. Slowly, as the morning progressed, I learned to pace the sequence of moves well enough to get four or five wonderfully graceful strokes before my rhythm fell apart, I floundered in the water, waving my oars like a total fool, but laughing. I am still in the process of learning and as I return to teaching, I will remember this beginning, the floundering and wobbling, as well as the wondrous moment when it all came together and I balanced my shell, gliding forward, looking back, in the early morning sun.


Amy L. Wink has taught writing and literature at several universities. She is the author of She Left Nothing in Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of 19th Century (University of Tennessee Press). She is currently an adjunct professor at Austin Community College.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top