The Mona Lisa. The Louvre. Paris. 2007. Photo by me.

Looking at/looking through: The Mona Lisa — that’s her in the back.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to see. Maybe because I re-read John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing,” one of the handful of books that transformed my undergraduate experience way back in the early ’00s, over the holidays. Going back to graduate school after a five-year career in journalism revealed to me just how much my mental models and learning processes had been shaped by that particular discipline. I had to challenge how I was used to organizing information, how I was used to reading and writing, and that sort of challenge always feels to me a bit like an identity crisis. (Now that I’m back in graduate school for a second time, at least I know what to expect!)

Indeed, I think it can be easy to forget just how much our world view is shaped by our chosen discipline and professional identity. For students just entering academia and struggling to find where they fit in, to make sense of their existing experience and what they’re confronted with for the first time in the classroom, this transition must be doubly challenging. I think we would do well to remember that discomfort.

So I was especially struck by the passage in this week’s readings from “How People Learn” on page 36: “One dimension of acquiring greater competence appears to be the increased ability to segment the perceptual field (learning how to see).”

Learning how to see. What a simple turn of phrase for something so complex and seemingly mysterious.

I appreciated how the “How People Learn” authors were able to closely examine this concept of knowledge organization and reveal how experts in a field benefit from thousands of hours of study, assimilating discipline-specific patterns of thinking and knowing, in order to economically bring to bear their ideas. But what a huge task for beginning college students to master!

In my three semesters as a college writing instructor in Idaho, I often felt I was struggling against students’ years of habituation to a culture of learning that demanded regurgitation rather than reflection and synthesis. For my students who struggled the most with developing their ideas in writing, I remember their difficulty in even articulating what they wanted to write about when given a choice.

“Well, what are you interested in?” I remember asking one student. “What do you mean?” the student replied.

I think the constraints of a traditional classroom framework — power structures, assessment pressure, feelings that the language or wisdom of your home aren’t valued — all work against the development of this higher-level knowledge organization, which seems to demand that students in some ways “give themselves over” to a particular discourse, a way of thinking and talking.

Students are right to be wary of such a shift, and teachers must find a way to awaken students’ prior knowledge and invite them to make new connections when given new models for conceptualizing their world.

Libraries, for me, represent a safe space for exploration. While they can be foreboding and confusing places to students, I also think they provide a measure of privacy for poking around in books and databases and starting to make sense of challenging new disciplines or ideas. While we may cringe at the search strategy of posing a conversational question to a database, I also see in that motion a student who is trying to reach out and make a connection in a language that feels familiar.

Librarians can also act as guides to larger contexts — connecting with the authors’ point on teaching students both factual knowledge and “when, where, and why to use that knowledge” (p. 49). Doing even basic research quickly reveals larger contexts of time period, authorship, publication norms, varying styles of speaking and writing, and varying ways of conceptualizing and organizing information.

However, whether librarians are able to make that context visible to learners in a meaningful way is another question, and one I hope to explore further this semester.

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